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Descent into the MAELSTROM
John Ed Bradley
December 08, 1997
Last spring, when University of Hawaii kicker Shannon Smith took some friends to slide down his favorite waterfall, an idyllic day ended in a tragedy that still haunts many of those who knew him
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December 08, 1997

Descent Into The Maelstrom

Last spring, when University of Hawaii kicker Shannon Smith took some friends to slide down his favorite waterfall, an idyllic day ended in a tragedy that still haunts many of those who knew him

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The house near the town of Kapaa, on the island of Kauai, is big and rambling and painted a pale yellow. It sits hard by Kamalu Road, and from the front porch you can see past small farms and open fields to Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth, forever darkened by rain clouds.

Snowbushes and bougainvillea color the front yard, and in a side yard a giant avocado tree drops fruit that thumps against the soft ground. Sometimes when the woman who lives in the house remembers the sixth of her seven children—which she does nearly every minute of the day, whether she is asleep or awake—she remembers him as a boy gathering the avocados and selling them from a stand on the side of the road.

One night not long after her son died, the woman stood outside on the lawn and looked to the sky and a wide blanket of stars. From inside the house came the sound of her husband snoring. As the woman was looking, a particular star seemed to wink at her. She watched it for a time, and it winked again, and she became certain the star was trying to communicate with her.

"Shannon," she said, "is that you?"

The star went black, as if in response.

"Shannon, if that's you...." Suddenly the star became bright again.

She wanted to wake her husband and share her discovery, but she feared that if she went inside, the star would disappear and she would look like a fool. "Oh, Shannon," she said.

And the star performed a cartwheel.

It was Saturday, March 29, three days before his 21st birthday, and Shannon Smith had never been happier or felt more alive. The junior placekicker for the University of Hawaii was leading a hiking expedition to a remote waterfall on Kauai, where he had grown up and where he had now returned for Easter. The group consisted of 11 people, among them Hawaii coach Fred vonAppen, his wife and two of their children, as well as two of Shannon's teammates, quarterback Tim Carey and strong safety Chris Shinnick.

Showing off the Waipahee Falls to his coach and friends was especially important to Shannon. The falls, rarely visited by tourists, had been closed to the public for safety reasons since 1979 and did not appear in recently published travel guides. Because the site was on private land and not easily accessible, only a portion of Kauai's 50,000 residents had seen it. To Shannon, though, Waipahee (pronounced why-puh-HAY-uh) was a little piece of paradise, one too beautiful and exciting not to share. He had been there a few dozen times, dating back to when he was a kid, and he didn't want the vonAppens or his teammates to leave the island without at least one trip down Slippery Slide, as locals call the falls.

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