By Léo Azambuja
While the world went crazy in March looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, we had our own share of tragedies here on Kaua‘i, losing five lives in four different incidents during a 10-day period.
We lost Birds in Paradise owner Gerry Charlebois in an accident yet to be explained in Polihale on March 11. Gerry was one of the most experienced pilots of powered hang-gliders on the planet.
When I heard one of his aircrafts had crashed and at least one person had been killed, I cringed. I texted a mutual friend, “please tell me Gerry is alright.” The response came in two texts, “No he’s not,” and “fatal.”
Later, county authorities said a 53-year-old visitor also died in the accident.
I met Gerry through my work as a reporter years ago. We started on the wrong foot — I was following up on an anonymous tip that he had got into an accident. He denied it and the tip apparently was a bogus one. But Gerry wasn’t too thrilled about my questions, to put it lightly.
But we got over that quickly, and throughout the years, Gerry continued to be a steady contributor of amazing pictures he took while flying. Sometimes those pictures were disturbing, such as a couple of humpback whales with a crooked back. Other times, revealing, such as a giant bio-mass plant near the South Shore.
Despite being an established aerial photographer whose work had been featured in several magazine covers, he never charged me a penny for his pictures.
Last November, I met with Gerry to write an article, and this time he was the news. A reality TV show was about to air, featuring him and his girlfriend. It was about their search to buy a perfect home where Gerry could fly the Mosquito, a foot-launched hang-glider powered by a small engine in the back with a propeller.
I did get a little confused. I said it didn’t make sense the show featured their search for a house, but ultimately they buy the home they already own, a little detail that was apparently left out in the show.
“It’s reality TV, Léo, it’s all phony,” he said, laughing. And laughing was something he did well. Gerry worked hard, but he knew how to enjoy life.
In January, I met with Gerry at his home, the same one featured in the show. He kindly gave me a handful of photos to publish on For Kaua‘i. I also took a copy of his movie, Epic Kaua‘i, which he told me it was the best selling movie in the state.
I never got around to watch it — it is still wrapped in plastic. I had told Gerry I would write a review, but now I don’t know what to do with it. I guess I’ll just save the movie for a special occasion.
March also marked Kaua‘i’s first two traffic fatalities of the year. Sam Mitzel, 29, died in a three-car crash in the North Shore March 4. Ten days later, Rico Yap, 25, died after his truck hit a utility pole in Lihu‘e.
Also in March, the ocean claimed the first drowning victim of the year. A 79-year-old visitor died while snorkeling in Po‘ipu March 13.
It’s sad to hear that after having a clean record in the first two months of 2014, we lost five lives on Kaua‘i during a span of 10 days, all due to accidents.
I guess the message here is, let’s be safe. I don’t know who or what caused any of these accidents, or if any of them could’ve been avoided at all. But we can still take them as a reminder to go the extra mile to avoid getting hurt or hurting others.
Slow down, even if you’re late. Forget you have a cell phone while driving. Ask someone, anyone, for a ride home if you drank enough alcohol to impair your driving.
And always remind visitors the ocean here is no joke. It kills even when it’s calm.
Let’s be an active part in keeping our friends, family and everyone else safe.
After all, safety is free and is one of the best life-insurance policies.