One Afternoon on Maui


It started as a sightseeing trip. It turned into a nightmare.

The noise is what Gordon Daniels remembers most. The relentless crash of the surf as waves ten to fifteen feet high thundered against the rocks and filtered the atmosphere with heavy mist, until the air itself was almost liquid. That sound made talking almost impossible.

The sky was cloudy that day—not with fluffy white puffs floating gently in an azure blue—but dark and ominous, and the wind howled its way along the cliffs.

Twenty-four teenage boys were sightseeing on the north shore of western Maui in Hawaii that afternoon after picking pineapples for more than two months. It was their last day off before one final week of work, then a week-long fun tour of the islands and home to the mainland. Most of the boys Gordon supervised already had traveler’s checks tucked away in the pockets of their jeans. They’d heard about a spectacular blowhole set in the middle of a smooth table of rock on the other side of the island, and they’d asked to see it.

They were all surprised. The north area was desolate, not lush or green like the Hawaii they were familiar with by then. Its terrain reminded them of pictures of the moon. No blade of grass, tree, or other living vegetation in any direction, or even a grain of sand to line the beach. Sharp, jagged lava rocks tapered down to disappear under the water’s edge.

Two groups of 12 boys—each with its own supervisor—drove in tandem that day, and they traveled in a pickup truck and a van.

Doug Carlsen’s boys reached the spot two or three minutes ahead of Gordon’s. Inching their way down the rugged slopes to the flat surface of the table, Gordon and his group noticed that six or seven of their friends were already sitting around the hole with ankles dangling over the edge.

Nobody thought of that as particularly dangerous. Pulling their feet away seconds before the onslaught of water made an exciting game. Every 35 or 40 seconds another wave pounded against the rocks below them and catapulted a spray through the hole in a pressurized stream of fury that shot up 50 feet into the air, hung suspended for a moment or two, and dropped back through the three-foot opening with a whoooshh! It was exciting!

The whole area was moist and slippery, and as Gordon’s charges hurried to meet their friends, they warned each other not to stray to the seaward side of the hole. They shivered at thoughts of slipping over the cliff, but the thought was academic. Nobody expected that to happen.

Then, without warning, a blast much more powerful than the rest exploded with a force that sent them scurrying back a full 25 feet into the overhanging rocks. Immediately the cry went up, “Where’s Mike?” And one answering voice wailed, “I think I saw him sucked into the hole!”

Funny how different sounds of the elements appear to our ears after they become the voice of the enemy. Excitement seconds before gave way to full-blown terror.

The two horrified leaders leaped to peer down into the depths of the blowhole—and it was pitch black. Driven away almost instantly by the next geyser, they returned to vainly search the inky blackness where Mike had disappeared.

Frantically they called his name, but no answer. Three times the water shot into the air and forced them to retreat, and three times they ran back to shout his name downward against the opposition of the wind.

Between the third and fourth eruptions there was an answer, and it was remarkably clear: “Yes, I’m down here, but I think I’m okay.” They were weak with relief. With each upcoming spout they’d expected to see bits and pieces of Mike’s broken body.

In unison the boys slipped out of their jeans and tied them together in a makeshift rope. Response from below had stopped. They lowered the rope into the darkness, yelling hoarsely for Mike to grab it as it came.

But the waves—the never-ending, frustrating, immutable waves—pounded the shore, and the endless spouting action continued. Twice they lowered the rope, and twice it was flung back in their faces. To say that they were frantic is, of course, a drastic understatement.

One of Mike’s special friends volunteered to climb down himself, but that idea was quickly vetoed. Centuries of rising and falling currents had smoothed all suggestion of a foothold from the rock’s surface. Brave as he was, that idea could never succeed.

Doug Carlsen sat hunched over, staring into the hole, his face a chalky white. “What am I going to do? We’ve got to save him!”

At that moment an object out in the bay caught someone’s attention, and they could make out that it was Mike. He bobbed up and down like a cork and was obviously unconscious, but strangely, his head remained fairly upright and clear of the water.

Doug leaped to his feet, shouting, “I’ve got to go get him!” Gordon yelled back, “Can you swim?” “Not that well, but he’s one of my kids—I’ve got to try!”

Greg Parker spoke up quickly. “I can swim,” he shouted against the beat of the surf. “I’m an Eagle Scout. I’ve got my lifesaving merit badge and I’m sure I can do it.”

So Greg, good looking, athletic, with lots of natural self-confidence, picked his way across the rocks and slipped down into the waves while Mike, meanwhile, bobbed closer and closer to the sharpened fingers of a dangerous outcropping of lava. With powerful strokes Greg reached Mike’s side and pulled him back into the open sea. He grabbed him across the chest in the swimmer’s carry. Mike was in shock, and Greg, holding him with one arm, attempted a sidestroke.

But where could they go? If they swam to shore, the pounding waves would batter them against the boulders. Water continually broke over their heads, and it was impossible not to take it into their lungs. Brackish sea water is salty and when swallowed causes involuntary retching action, sapping the strength from the strongest of swimmers, and Greg’s whole system was affected.

By this time they were back to 20 feet from the table. The helpless onlookers could barely distinguish Greg’s words: “Can’t make it. We need some help.”

A scream came from Steve Dudley’s lips: “Greg’s my best friend.” And before anyone could move, he dove into the raging water. Now instead of one boy to worry about, there were three.

But he succeeded in reaching the other two as Mike regained partial consciousness. Later, a typical teenager, Mike joked, “I knew I wasn’t in heaven because I looked around and Greg was there!”

He remembered the horror of being sucked through the blowhole by the rush of returning water and dropping with a thud onto a ledge 12 feet or so below. He had managed to wedge himself there temporarily but not for long. The flow of tons of water hurrying back to the sea dislodged his tenuous grip, and together they hurtled along a horizontal tunnel and were unceremoniously spewed out at its end.

Now Greg and Steve, working together, eased Mike farther out to sea away from the boulders, and they were comparatively safe for the moment. Gordon turned to the other group leader. “I’ve got to be by myself to think. I’ll be back in a minute.”

He stepped behind a huge rock where he could be alone and offered up a mighty appeal to the Lord. He promised everything he had or ever would have, anything God wanted of him he was willing to give if only He would help bring the boys safely out of the water.

Walking out from behind the barrier, Gordon noticed a small cove about 40 feet to the right. It was rocky still, but slightly sheltered. Perhaps if the boys could get to that point they could hang on until a Coast Guard helicopter could be summoned. They’d been fighting the waves for 20 minutes, and he could see they were tiring rapidly. Above the wind and waves he heard them pray, “Oh, God, please—help us!”

The boys on shore gathered, kneeling, into a prayer circle. Gordon stood off to one side. In the back of his head a definite thought sprang full-blown. It was almost, but not quite, a voice and the words were, “You’ve got to calm the seas.”

His first reaction was shock at the presumption that he could attempt to call forth that kind of power. Moses parted the waters, but he was plain Gordon Daniels. The thought of trying something so far out of his realm of identification scared him.

The impression came again and for a third time. “You’ve got to calm the seas.” It became all-consuming and pushed everything else to the background, except for the nagging worry, “Will I be held accountable someday for misusing my priesthood authority?”

He raised his arm toward heaven and in the name of Jesus Christ he commanded the waves to be still until the boys in peril were rescued. The prayer circle dispersed, and they gathered around Gordon as he repeated his command a second time.

Immediately the surges that had rolled in so relentlessly were calmer. Then two giant waves from opposing directions—directions where no waves had originated before—formed and came together in the shape of a V. Their point of intersection was exactly where the limp and nearly lifeless swimmers struggled to stay afloat. The point lifted and nudged them 45 feet closer to the cove.

One of the boys had previously run back to the pickup for a styrofoam cushion. He threw it toward the swimmers with every ounce of his strength as a second pair of waves converged in an identical manner and tossed them the remaining distance. Now they were within ten feet of the protection of the cove. Steve caught the cushion and slipped it under Mike like a surfboard and in seconds they were within their rescuers’ reach.

The remaining problem was that the shoreline of the protected area was no different than was the rest of that bleak, forbidding stretch. There were still boulders to deal with and the distinct possibility that those miraculous waves that appeared out of nowhere and boosted them, twice, might also dash them to pieces on the unyielding rocks.

Gordon started to run the instant he saw the V begin to form. He had to reach the cove before the exhausted swimmers did.

He waded in to midthigh and reached out for Mike. As he did, the waves hit again and a surge of water covered them both completely. With hands high over his head, he held his breath and passed Mike up through the water to waiting hands on the boulders above, then repeated the process with Greg. Steve let go of the cushion and was flung into the rocks before Gordon got to him. He was badly scraped on his ribs and sides.

Mike was incoherent and babbling, but all three were out of the water and they were alive.

Everybody felt drained. Roughly 45 emotional minutes had elapsed since the first startled cry of “Where’s Mike?” They sagged against the closest support they could find, expecting to rest there long enough to catch their breath. But Gordon was filled with a terrible urgency to get them completely away, and they started to climb.

One boy remembered traveler’s checks in the pockets of jeans they’d left tied together on the rocks of the cove. He started back to retrieve them. Gordon screamed out, “No! Leave them. Let’s get out of here!”

They carried Mike in their arms, and Gordon was the last to walk out. He turned for one last look, and a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds. It was nearly 5 o’clock. He was exhausted but grateful.

As he looked out over the sea, a new type of wave rushed toward him, not rough at the edges as the others had been, but smooth. He watched in fascination as a black hole opened up on its crest. The blackest part curled over and touched down precisely on top of the jeans (the spot they’d all occupied only seconds before, and where at least one boy would have been standing if allowed to go back). When it oozed back to sea the rocks were bare; all traces of the jeans had disappeared, swallowed up as completely as if they’d never existed.

They carried Mike as far up the cliffs as they could manage, and there they stopped to wrap him in semi-dry towels before heading back to camp. Quite a stir was created when they walked in late for dinner hour in dripping wet underwear.

The local fire department transported the three to a hospital in Kahalui. Their only injuries were cuts on Steve’s ribs and some salt water in Mike’s lungs. Doctors kept Mike overnight for observation and were amazed he lived to tell the tale. Others had fallen into that hole; no one else ever came out alive.

Steve and Greg were presented with the Key to Maui County by Mayor Cravalhe in recognition of their exceptional heroism.

As for Gordon, he still feels a chill thinking back to the hopelessness of that afternoon on the desolate shores of Maui, and a sense of wonder at being permitted to take part in the miracle. He hasn’t forgotten his promise.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown