Mar. 2, 2007— -- The Hawaiian island of Kauai, with its pristine rain forests and idyllic beaches, is an American paradise. The "Garden Isle," as it's called, is also a popular wedding destination, a remote and romantic setting that lures young couples to take their vows amid its exotic beauty.
Kristina "Sunny" McNees and Daniel Arroyo had chosen a garden setting on the island called the Taro Patch for their wedding. It was to be a lot like the wedding of Aurora Fehring and Alan Dingwall, who were married on her parents' lush Kauai land. Fehring grew up on the island, and her Swiss fiancé fell in love with her, and with the land around them.
Kauai is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it is also one of the wettest. The island gets, on average, 466 inches -- nearly 40 feet -- of rainfall every year in the mountain rainforest. Rain is the island's primary source of fresh water, and supports irrigation for agriculture. For more than a century, that rain also fed the Kaloko Reservoir near the base of the mountains, three miles above the Fehring's home. Few living in the valley ever thought much about the 30 acre body of water, and virtually no one considered it a threat.
But on March 14th, 2006, a few days before Arroyo and McNees were to marry, after 40 straight day of rainfall, a panicked phone call was placed to 911.
"The Kaloko Dam's broken. This is a catastrophic emergency," said the caller.
Those who heard the noise that morning will never forget it -- as some 400 million gallons of water, weighing some 1.6 million tons -- were unleashed down into the valley.
Chris Carlson, who lived above the Kilauea stream where the floodwaters emptied into the sea, thought it was a train. But there are no trains one on the island. Through the pre-dawn darkness she could actually see what was happening, although she had trouble believing it.
"This big huge wall of white water was coming in," she said. "It was shaking the house and it was very, very intense, and we were totally freaked out."
Bruce Fehring and his wife Cyndee were staying on another part of the island when the floodwaters from the dam break bullied everything in its path. He too placed a call to 911.
Bruce: My neighbor tells me that all my buildings are gone on my property.
Operator: "Do you know if anybody was in the house at the time?"
Bruce: "Yes there were at least six people on there."
Operator: "Six people!"
Bruce: "Six people…"
In fact, seven people were missing, including Bruce's daughter Aurora, her husband Alan, and their two-year-old son Rowan.
Bruce said his first thought when he saw his land was, "Everything's gone and it appears like everyone who was there is likely gone."
"The magnitude of the disaster all of a sudden really hit home," Bruce said. "Virtually the entire valley had been stripped clean of everything that was here."
"I couldn't get my bearings," Cyndee said. "It was inconceivable that a house could disappear like that -- a big house."
Their land was unrecognizable…the sudden rush of water was that strong.
Resident John Hawthorne said that "when this event was over with, there was not one living thing in this valley. Every single fish, bird, frog, bugs -- everything living in this valley was completely gone."
Also gone were the Fehring's family members, Wayne Rotstein and Timothy Noonan -- 2 friends who worked the land for them, and the engaged couple Kristina McNees and Daniel Arroyo. All of them swept away, some into the Pacific. Four of their bodies were never recovered.
At the memorial honoring the dead, 300 mourners followed the floodwaters' path to the Pacific. "Follow us as we walk down and take our loved ones' remains to the sea," Bruce said.
"In the face of such immense tragedy, people's hearts open up and they just, you know, they feel for you, they feel for your hurt…The support that we received was immeasurable," said Bruce.
But behind the grief, a nagging question. How did this tragedy occur?
"How could this have possibly happened? How could we not have known about this danger?" asked Bruce.
In the days after the flood, the tragedy was passed off as an act of God, caused by weather alone. It was certainly a disaster, but was it a natural disaster? Why did an century-old earthen dam that had held up during bigger rainfalls suddenly burst?
Hawaii's governor, Linda Lingle, soon visited the island to survey the damage and announced state help. During her appearance, she was approached by a man offering a startling answer to that question.
Mike Dyer went to the Kaloko Reservoir often, and he says he knew something no one else would tell about the dam at the top of paradise.
Dyer said that, "I walked up to her and said 'I think you should know that there may have been some human involvement in this, and it wasn't totally an accident or an act of God.'"
Multi-millionaire Jimmy Pflueger owns more than 500 acres on Kauai, including most of the property surrounding the Kaloko Reservoir and the entire dam itself, and it was Pflueger who Dyer was referencing when he spoke with the governor. After Pflueger bought the land, over the next decade, he had his workers level a 50 foot hill just to the side of the dam to clear the land for waterfront home sites.
Dyer's concern about what was happening up at the Kaloko Reservoir dated back nearly a decade earlier, to late 1997. "We could look up toward the mountains and see that there was some major clearing and grading going on -- on the hillside," said Dyer.
Curious about all the massive grading going on around the reservoir, Dyer went up to take a look and take some photos. While up there, he says he made a disturbing find: a key part of the dam's safety system -- the emergency spillway -- was gone, covered with fresh dirt from that 50 foot hill.
As Dyer told us, "Part of the grading had been grading right down into the spillway. And…it had all been filled up. So there was no longer a spillway. It had been filled up."
By design, earthen dams like Kaloko have a slightly depressed area -- a spillway -- to one side of the dam's face. In this case, the spillway was about 20 feet wide and below the top of the dam. So in periods of heavy rain, the excess water would spill out the side in a controlled fashion, instead of overtopping of the dam, eroding the soil, and possibly causing the dam to fail.
Dyer says that when he saw that the spillway was filled, he was "concerned right away," and he decided to blow the whistle on Jimmy Pflueger, one of the most powerful men in Hawaii, a man who former colleague Alan Rietow said was well-known on the island.
"Having grown up in Hawaii…we all knew who jimmy Pfllueger was," Rietow said."He had a reputation as a being a very big sportsman [and] waterman."
Phflueger also raced stock cars, and he went on to become the biggest, most successful car dealer in Hawaii. Now 81-years-old, with the body and gusto of a much younger man, Pflueger is a larger than life force with a John Wayne swagger and a thirst for adventure.
As for the grading being done by the Kaloko Dam, Dyer says that he sent Pfllueger a fax to warn him about the dangers.
"I just wanted to point out this is a potentially serious problem," Dyer explained, "so I sent him a fax saying I'd like to talk to you about the spillway at Kaloko."
And when Pfllueger didn't respond to the fax, Dyer sent him another:
It warns that covering the spillway can cause the water to "flow over a broad area in the middle of your earth dam," a dangerous situation.
Still hearing nothing from Pfllueger, Dyer wrote the state, included his pictures of the covered spillway and reported what he saw. And Dyer was not the only one to report something suspicious on Jimmy Pflueger's property.
County records, obtained by "20/20," show that six months earlier, they got an anonymous complaint about all the grading without permits that had been going on around Kaloko in 1997. An inspector from the County Engineering Department was sent out and Pflueger received a notice to "stop work immediately."
But Pflueger didn't. A meeting was called in the Kauai Mayor's office.
"The county inspectors are told very clearly, stay away from Jimmy Pflueger," and he "didn't stop the work" notes Hawaiian jounalist Malia Zimmerman, who is a "20/20" consultant. Zimmerman has written extensively about the Kaloko Dam disaster in her online newspaper, HawaiiReporter.com, where she first reported on a large political contribution Pflueger told her he gave to the mayor of Kauai.
Pflueger confirmed the donation to "20/20" and says he hid it in the names of eight of his employees.
"He [told me] that he made a political contribution to [the mayor] of $9,000," Zimmerman said, adding, "he was hoping that would get the inspectors off his back."
But Pflueger says he gave the mayor the money because he thought she needed help, and says there was no deal involved. Maryann Kusaka, who was the mayor at the time, told "20/20" she would not talk about the case because it's under investigation. She did, however, respond to the $9,000 contribution allegation, saying it was "absolutely ludicrous." When asked again if Pfluegler paid any political contributions, she said,
"Absolutely not, not that I'm aware of."
Contribution or not, country officials weren't the only ones to drop the ball. State records obtained by "20/20" confirm that despite Hawaii lawthat mandates the state to inspect dams at least once every five years, Flueger's Kaloko dam had never been inspected by the responsible agency. State authorities now complain he refused to let them on his property despite numerous attempts to inspect from 1999 through 2002. Pflueger denies that, and says he doesn't have the power to keep the state off his land. He also says he invited other state agents on his property several times because he thought the irrigation system at the reservoir poised a flood risk.
Actress Bette Midler was born and raised in Hawaii, and she owns property on the island of Kauai, a tropical valley she bought just to leave in its natural state, including about 20 acres directly in the path of the Kaloko Dam breach. Part of that property is a favored local swimming hole, known as "Midler's Pond."
Midler said that, "It was such a picture postcard place. It was the kind of place that you dream of, and now, that's all gone. And it's a gorge. It's pretty staggering."
Like many on the island, Midler is angry about what happened to the seven people who were swept to their deaths by the flash flood. And she is also angered by what she and many others believe is a complete disregard for the land.
"People have to be aware that this kind of behavior has consequences," said Midler.
For months after this tragedy in paradise, Bruce and Cyndee Fehring found it difficult to return to the home they love. Memories of their daughter Aurora's attachment to the land haunted them.
"She was always barefoot," said Cyndee, "even as an adult she didn't want to wear shoes most of the time."
And there was 2 year-old Rowan, whose body was never found after it was swept to sea.
"He was a pretty incredible little boy," said Cyndee. "And he loved to come to our house … and he loved to read books. And we had a lot of fun being grandparents. We were lucky."
After the fatal flood, the Fehrings thought about selling their land, but through the pain came another tender feeling, that the spirit of family was now in the soil.
"As time went on, I realized well, you know, my children were raised here, and they grew up here, but also, they died herem=," said Cyndee. "So how can you leave that, in a way. It's kind of a sacred place for me right now."
The Fehrings are searching for answers, and they are not alone. Some on Kauai have formed Dam Mad, a community group pushing for an independent investigation. And there is a multi-plaintiff civil lawsuit, and Bette Middler's name is on it, along with the Fehrings and dozens of others int he community whose lives and property were impacted by the dam break tragedy.
"The devastation has to be corrected … it's hard to believe that people don't love the land the way you do," Midler said. "And they don't love their neighbors they way they ought."
These are serious accusations being made against the man who owns most of the land around Kaloko and the dam itself. So "20/20" sought out Pflueger to get his side of the story. ABC's Jim Avila approached Pflueger and asked if we could ask him some questions.
"You got me between a rock and a hard place," he said. "I have lots to tell you."
While he denied any responsibility for the dam breach, he claims the irrigation company that pumps the water to local farms is responsible for dam maintenance at Kaloko. He also said he never got any faxes from Dyer about a spillway, and even though he has an intimate relationship with his land, he says he doesn't know anything about a spillway, much less covering it over.
When asked if he categorically denies that he caused the breach, he said,
"I definitely deny I caused that breach."
The only way to see the area today is by helicopter. From the air, the destruction is clear: the crumbled front wall of Kaloko, the flat spot where the hillside used to be, and just to the side of the dam's face, what used to be the spillway, covered over.
Attorney Robert Godbey was appointed by the Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett to investigate what may have caused the Kaloko dam breach. He filed a 216 page report with recommendations about how the state legislature could prevent another disaster like it.
"I don't have any reason to doubt that there was a spillway," he said. "I believe that there was a spillway. In fact, I think earthen dams are almost always constructed with a spillway."
But what Attorney Godbey's report doesn't have, "20/20" found: a 1982 aerial photo of the dam taken before Pflueger purchased the land around Kaloko. In the photo, the spillway is clearly visible.
Although Godbey's civil investigation makes no definitive conclusions, the investigating engineer believed that the most likely reason that there was a breach was because there was no spillway and that the water overtopped.The report also faults Kauai officials, including the former mayor, for lifting the stop work order on Pflueger's property.
A second investigation by Bennett is underway to see if this disaster is a crime. Among the witnesses is sure to be Mike Dyer.
"I think Mike Dyer was a hero," said Godbey. But Dyer himself disagrees. Today, Dyer is filled with regret.
"I just don't know…why it went all wrong. I told the landowner and I told the state. But I didn't stick with it long enough. I'm sorry, you are not going to convince me otherwise. I didn't make sure that things were straightened out."
But many on the island believe that the wrong man is apologizing. Pflueger sees himself as a victim; he says Dyer and the victims are in "cahoots" and trying to nail him to the cross.
Midler said that "I think he will go to his grave saying 'it wasn't my fault.' Because that's just the kind of guy he is."
As for Bruce Fehring, he keeps the memory of his daughter Aurora close to his heart.
"She's lost to us now, but she's gonna live on in our memory and she's gonna inspire us through the rest of our lives."
The Fehrings try not to be angry, and say they do not want vengeance. What they do want is accountability for what they and many others believe was a deliberate decision to alter the main safety system of a dam that burst in the middle of the night killing seven innocent people.
"Filling in a spillway, the emergency spillway on a dam, the major safety feature of any dam, is not only dangerous, it is negligent. And especially if by doing so it results in death or destruction, it is criminal and should be treated as such," Bruce said.