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.