A Dark And Stormy Night In Palolo

Palolo firefighters (from left) Beau Gilliland, Jason Takara, Austin Kaiu and Jay Kauhane | Photo from Jason Takara

The alarm came in at about 7:30 in the evening, during the last few bites of my pan-seared salmon. Hikers in distress, at the foot of the waterfall, two women, no injuries, just lost!

That’s how Jason Takara, a captain with the Honolulu Fire Department, began his story in a remarkable letter he sent me a few weeks ago.

Takara was about to retire, and he wanted to convey all the love and passion he felt for his 25-year career. His account of one of his final days on the job as head of the Palolo Fire Station, 3rd Platoon, is riveting, honest and emotional.

As I wolfed down my potentially last meal for who knows how long, I noticed that it was already dark and rain was falling. Damn! We are on our own. Air 1, our most beloved piece of equipment during these types of rescues, would not be able to fly anyone in or out of the valley. I ran to refill my water bottle and gulped it down with a couple of anti-inflammatories.

Then anger set in. “Why do I have to do this on my last few days of my career? I don’t need to get hurt! I don’t deserve to go out this way!” Whoa, what a way to leave the department, in a body bag after falling off a dark, wet, slippery trail in my own home town of Palolo Valley.

Takara doesn’t sugarcoat the life of a firefighter. He won’t miss “waking up in the middle of the night. It can happen five, six times a night.”

He knows his work was tough on his wife Louise and their kids.

“It can definitely bring a lot of hardship to a family because of the shift work. You miss a lot of activities, a lot of firsts.”

He was one of the lucky ones – after many years of shift work, he was promoted to captain and landed a 40-hour week. That meant he got to go home almost every night.

And what he will miss most of all is the camaraderie on the job – friendships, teamwork, humor and the shared experiences, good and bad.

I have a great team, we all double-checked each other, making sure we had our safety equipment, communications, lights and, of course, water!

As we started to make our way from the roadway into the trail, the first sign of lightning flashed ahead of us. We kind of all looked at each other with that look of ‘what next?’ on our faces.

Fire Communications dispatched at the same moment, “Be advised a flood watch has just been issued for the island of Oahu.”

Again, anger hit me with a left hook to my ribs, “Why me?”

As Takara tells it, they got to the third crossing of the stream when bright lights appeared behind them.

Right on! Rescue 1, with Captain Kino and his crew of Alika, flying up the trail like he get one motor, and Chris and Blake.

“What’s up gang, how look to you?” I asked.

“Nah, no worry. We get the rope and if we got to use it to cross the stream, can!” Kino replied.

“This my last three shift then I retire!” I cried

Captain Kino congratulated me on my retirement and then gave me an option: “Stay here, no need come if you no like, we get ’em!”

Half of the contingent was already across the stream and jamming up the trail. I had to make a decision real fast or get left behind.

Of course, Takara did not want to be left behind.

It took us about 45 minutes to an hour to get to the GPS coordinates, but it felt a lot longer. My left knee and my right ankle were beginning to show their age. The trail was not only narrow and horrific, but wet and dark, too! Luckily I was surrounded by some of the most dedicated and brave guys around.

And that, he says, is when he had his epiphany.

“Why am I getting angry? “We don’t do it for the pat on the back or any recognition. It’s just what we do.”

This was exactly what he’d signed on for 25 years ago. He wouldn’t have changed it, or traded it, for any other life or career.

It took that potentially hazardous situation to illustrate to me one last time the lesson of humility, compassion and patience in the face of adversity. Through the efforts of the crew of Rescue 1 and my team from Engine 33/3 and how they exhibited their professionalism toward two wayward hikers taught me what blessings have been given to me and what it means to experience a career with the Honolulu Fire Department.

It takes courage to be a firefighter and Takara is brave. But, he says, two things scare him.

First and foremost, “making the wrong decision, resulting in my guys or the victims getting hurt. That’s my worst fear. Not making the right call.

“The second part is my own endangerment.

“But my biggest fear is putting my guys’ lives in danger.”

I salute Jason Takara and all firefighters everywhere. They put their lives on the line for us day in and day out, not for wealth or fame or awards of any kind, but simply because they have a desire to help people. They deserve our respect and our deepest gratitude.

Mahalo and happy retirement, Jason. You earned it.