University of Hawaii junior football player Shannon Smith drowned during the weekend while saving the youngest child of his head coach, Fred vonAppen.
Von Appen said Smith was part of a hiking party Saturday afternoon that included several members of his family and players Tim Carey and Chris Shinnick.
According to Kauai police, Smith and the vonAppens were swimming at Waipahee Slippery Slide.
Smith, who would have been 21 today, and vonAppen’s son, Cody, 6, went down the natural slide together, but once in the water, got into trouble.
“It probably lasted only 2 minutes, but it was the most chaotic and frightening experience of our lives,” vonAppen said Monday. “There were 11 of us hiking into this remote area Shannon wanted to show us.
“It took about 30 minutes because it was very rough and difficult terrain. The trail was muddy, so we were arriving at this spot at different intervals. When Shannon got there, he just dove in.
“He and Cody got there first, so when he came out, they went down the slide together. I don’t think Shannon knew how dangerous the water was because he was used to it, but it was rough and swirling, with a vicious current that sucked you under.”
VonAppen’s wife, Thea, was taking pictures from a nearby cliff when she saw Smith and her son in trouble. She went down the slide and got into trouble, too.
“Shannon passed off Cody to Thea,” vonAppen said. “She’s a very strong swimmer, but I could tell that something was wrong. She yelled out… . So I tore off my jacket and jumped in. I was immediately sucked under. I looked up and all I could see was swirling murky water, and some light up above me.”
After the coach fought his way to the surface, he saw Smith was beginning to tire. His wife turned and gave Cody to vonAppen, who eventually gave him to Carey, who was near the shore.
“I’ll never forget the fear in his eyes or my wife’s,” vonAppen said. “The water was rushing all around us. I was beginning to tire and so was Thea. I wasn’t sure if any of us would get out alive.”
By this time, other members of the party arrived. Smith was still above water and refused to get out. Fred vonAppen managed to grab a rock, while his wife was helped out of the water by her daughter, Kristan.
Shinnick yelled from shore that Smith was gone and was about to jump in, but vonAppen told him not to because the current was too strong.
“I know Shannon stayed in the water only to make sure we got out safely. He could have swam to shore at any time. I don’t know how he stayed up as long as he did because he was in the center of the whirlpool. He is a hero. You can’t say enough about what he did.”
Kauai police Sgt. Cecil Baliaris said the Waipahee Slippery Slide was once a tourist attraction, but is now on private property and closed to the public. “It’s usually OK to go down the slide, but this time of year it can be dangerous because of the heavy rains.”
Smith’s brother, Ryan, said the medical examiner believes Shannon hit his head on a rock and was knocked unconscious. His body was found 90 minutes after he was pulled under.