The house near the town of Kapaa, on the island of Kauai, is big
and rambling and painted a pale yellow. It sits hard by Kamalu
Road, and from the front porch you can see past small farms and
open fields to Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth,
forever darkened by rain clouds.
Snowbushes and bougainvillea color the front yard, and in a side
yard a giant avocado tree drops fruit that thumps against the
soft ground. Sometimes when the woman who lives in the house
remembers the sixth of her seven children--which she does nearly
every minute of the day, whether she is asleep or awake--she
remembers him as a boy gathering the avocados and selling them
from a stand on the side of the road.
One night not long after her son died, the woman stood outside
on the lawn and looked to the sky and a wide blanket of stars.
From inside the house came the sound of her husband snoring. As
the woman was looking, a particular star seemed to wink at her.
She watched it for a time, and it winked again, and she became
certain the star was trying to communicate with her.
"Shannon," she said, "is that you?"
December 8, 1997
The star went black, as if in response.
"Shannon, if that's you...." Suddenly the star became bright
She wanted to wake her husband and share her discovery, but she
feared that if she went inside, the star would disappear and she
would look like a fool. "Oh, Shannon," she said.
And the star performed a cartwheel.
It was Saturday, March 29, three days before his 21st birthday,
and Shannon Smith had never been happier or felt more alive. The
junior placekicker for the University of Hawaii was leading a
hiking expedition to a remote waterfall on Kauai, where he had
grown up and where he had now returned for Easter. The group
consisted of 11 people, among them Hawaii coach Fred vonAppen,
his wife and two of their children, as well as two of Shannon's
teammates, quarterback Tim Carey and strong safety Chris Shinnick.
Showing off the Waipahee Falls to his coach and friends was
especially important to Shannon. The falls, rarely visited by
tourists, had been closed to the public for safety reasons since
1979 and did not appear in recently published travel guides.
Because the site was on private land and not easily accessible,
only a portion of Kauai's 50,000 residents had seen it. To
Shannon, though, Waipahee (pronounced why-puh-HAY-uh) was a
little piece of paradise, one too beautiful and exciting not to
share. He had been there a few dozen times, dating back to when
he was a kid, and he didn't want the vonAppens or his teammates
to leave the island without at least one trip down Slippery
Slide, as locals call the falls.
"What are you doing over Easter?" Shannon had asked vonAppen one
day in the coach's office in Honolulu.
"I'm working," vonAppen replied, surprised that any player--let
alone a walk-on--would dare ask such a question. In 1996,
vonAppen's first year at Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors had won
only two games. "Until we turn this thing around, Shannon, I
don't take time off."
"Have you ever been to Kauai?"
"Yes, I have, and it's beautiful."
"I can show you things there you haven't seen before. It's my
VonAppen cocked an eyebrow, impressed by the kid's confidence.
"Come over and stay with my parents at their bed-and-breakfast,"
Shannon said. "We'll take care of you."
As it turned out, take care to Shannon meant filling virtually
every waking hour of the trip with adventure: kayaking down
rivers, touring the Fern Grotto, hiking up the steep mountain
face of Sleeping Giant. VonAppen's wife, Thea, 37, is a
natural-born daredevil, but Fred, 19 years her senior, is the
cerebral sort, more likely to be thrilled by a volume of obscure
poetry. The coach wanted to hibernate in his room for three days
and read the hours away. Shannon, though, wanted him to
experience all the magic of the Garden Island, as Kauai is
called, and to love the place as much as he did.
With that in mind, Shannon had saved the best adventure for
last. The vonAppens were scheduled to fly back to Honolulu on
Easter Sunday. On Saturday, Shannon set out to show them
They left Rosewood, the Smiths' B&B on the eastern side of the
island, and headed northwest toward a mountain range shrouded in
fog. After driving about five miles down the washed-out roads of
a sugarcane plantation, they hiked past a gate posted with
WARNING and NO TRESPASSING signs, then along trails so muddy
that they were easier to negotiate without shoes.
For days rain had fallen in the mountains, and the stream
feeding Slippery Slide was dirty with runoff and several feet
deeper than usual. To reach the waterfall the hikers descended
into a valley clotted with wild ferns and strawberry guava
trees, then padded over black lava rocks worn smooth by ancient
Generally emerald green and ankle high in good weather, the
stream that day "reached up to your waist," says Bob Baggs, 59,
a friend of Shannon's family's who was on the hike. "Up above
the falls it was so muddy you couldn't see bottom or anyone's
foot. And down in the pool where the water fell, it was very
rough and churning and a kind of brown color."
Shannon stood a few feet from the flume and removed his hat,
shirt and sandals. As he was preparing to give the slide a trial
run, one of the members of the group said, "Shannon, this
water's running too heavy. I'm not going in."
It was Mike Law, 60, a friend and neighbor of the Smiths' who
was making his first visit to Slippery Slide. "I just didn't
trust the look of the stream," says Law, an experienced
waterman. "Shannon was still just a kid, and I knew it wouldn't
do me a bit of good to say, 'Hey, let's don't do this.' He's
still bulletproof, right? And you don't get over being
bulletproof until you're at least 35."
The height of the falls varies according to the volume of water
in the pool below, and on this day the height was only about 10
feet, shorter than usual by a third. The water also was
cascading with such force that it formed a vortex in the pool.
To Law that vortex resembled a huge toilet bowl sucking
everything down to a depth that couldn't be judged accurately
from the rocks above.
Shannon had experienced only great times at the slide, and he
probably knew little or nothing about its savage history. One
reason Waipahee usually appears innocuous is its size: The pool
at the bottom of the waterfall is only about 12 feet wide and 25
feet long. Its depth, though, is another matter. In rainy
conditions, such as those occurring on Shannon's Easter
expedition, the pool can run as deep as 30 feet, giving rise to
a local legend that the hole is bottomless. In fact a dense bed
of silt rests on the floor. Centuries of rapid water have cut a
terraced cave at the foot of the cliff face, and there the
whirling currents become especially powerful during times of
flooding. In the 35 years before Shannon's excursion, nine
people had drowned at Slippery Slide, three of them teenagers
killed on one day in 1971. No one in Shannon's lifetime had been
lost at the site, however, and close calls rumored to have
occurred there did not involve 20-year-old athletes with his
prodigious swimming abilities.
Shannon, perhaps overeager to impress his coach and to provide
another uncommon experience for his friends, ignored Law's
admonition and went down the slide headfirst. The velocity of
his dive carried his 200-pound body past the turbulence. He
climbed back up the rocks to the ecstatic shouts of Cody
vonAppen, Thea and Fred's six-year-old son. "Take me down the
slide now, take me down the slide," the boy was saying.
"When Shannon got out, I heard him say, 'It's moving,' or
something like that," says Shinnick. "Cody was wanting to go
down the slide by himself, but Shannon said, 'No, let me go down
Shannon took the 60-pound boy in his arms and sat in the rushing
water at the mouth of the flume. From the rocks nearby, Thea
lifted a camera and snapped a picture just as Shannon and Cody
began their downward slide. They entered the pool feetfirst,
falling directly into the vortex, and several long seconds
passed before they surfaced, heads barely visible in the frothy
swirls. "Something's wrong," Thea muttered.
She could see Cody gasping for breath and Shannon desperately
fighting to hold him up. They were caught in the vortex. The
water pushed them against the cliff face, then brought them back
Frantic now, Thea removed a few articles of clothing and went
down the slide. "When I hit the water and didn't come up to the
surface right away, I thought, Oh, my god," she says. "I knew it
wasn't right, and I knew Cody wouldn't be strong enough to
survive. I thought about death immediately--for him, anyway. I
can remember the water, not feeling it so much as hearing it. I
remember gasping at the cold. And I remember feeling a very
strong downward pull. I grabbed at the rocks to try to hold on,
but the rocks tore my nails off. I remember going under a few
times and coming back up, and I didn't see Cody. Then he'd
resurface, and Shannon would be holding him. The only thing
Shannon said was, 'Come on, Cody, keep swimming. Keep your head
up.' He never panicked."
Thea called for help, and Fred hustled out of his shirt and
jacket. He ran over to the flume and, still wearing a pair of
sneakers, followed his wife into the pool. He was only vaguely
aware that right behind him, Tim Carey had also thrown himself
down the slide.
"As soon as I got in, I was out of control," Fred says. "I
looked up, and I could see this hole of murky water, and I
remember thinking to myself, I'm way deeper than I should be. I
had a bitch of a time getting up. At first I thought it was the
weight of the shoes, but then the vortex pushed me over to the
rock wall. At that point Thea handed me Cody, and he's got his
arms around my neck and I'm treading water. Thea and Shannon had
been passing Cody back and forth, but I didn't see Shannon. Thea
was tiring, and I thought, s---, as strong as she is, if she's
Two minutes had gone by, perhaps more. Fred handed Cody to Tim,
who treaded water beside them. "Are we going to die?" the boy
said in a quiet voice.
"I was thinking, If I just had one more arm, I could keep
rotating forever," Tim says. "I was thinking, I know I'm going
to get out of here, but how are we going to get this kid out?
Nothing was working. You couldn't grab onto the rocks."
Shannon had been in the pool twice as long as everyone else,
most of that time supporting Cody, while kicking his legs madly
in the loose, aerated water. Tim finally freed himself from the
whirlpool and made it to safety. From where he stood on a bed of
rocks he watched as Thea came spinning around with Cody in her
arms. He grabbed the boy and hoisted him ashore just as Fred
frog-kicked past the rapids and pulled himself out of the water.
Thea, meanwhile, was on her last breath and starting to black
out. So this is what it's like to die, she recalls thinking
moments before her 17-year-old daughter, Kristan, who had
scrambled down from the cliff top, extended a stick to her and
dragged her clear of the vortex.
Chris Shinnick was standing at the top of the falls. "Where's
Shannon?" he shouted. Everyone turned to face him, and Chris
said it again, his voice wild with alarm as it bounced against
the high mountain walls. "Where's Shannon?"
Of course he knew where Shannon was. A moment before, he had
watched the churning water cover his friend's face, closing over
it like a sliding door. A prayer came to Chris. "God," he said,
"please...." He stood in the flume, prepared to fling himself
down the slide. "I'm going in," he said. From the rocks below,
Fred and Thea and Tim frantically waved him away, but he said,
"I've got to, I've got to go in."
"No!" they shouted, all three of them together. "Don't do it!"
If you go down feetfirst, Chris thought, and if you stick your
feet as low as you can to try to kick him, to jar him loose from
the whirlpool--you might save him.
"Chris, no!" Fred yelled. "You'll die, too."
So Chris sat on the rocks and waited. He waited while Tim called
911 on Thea's cell phone. He waited while firefighters with fins
and masks and snorkels tried to find Shannon's body. He waited
while additional rescue personnel in scuba gear did the same. He
waited and remembered how good life had been for him and
Shannon, and he understood that nothing would ever be the same
Nearly two hours went by. Suddenly Chris knew there was no need
to wait any longer.
"Oh, Shannon," he said, watching as the body floated faceup to
the surface of the pool. Then Chris followed the others away
from the falls and up along the trail to whatever else life
could possibly bring.
A little more than an hour after Shannon disappeared, Law and
Baggs parked on the cinder drive at Rosewood and waited for
either Rosemary Smith or her husband, Norbert, to return home.
After about 15 minutes Norbert pulled up and said through his
open window, "Hey, what are you guys doing here?"
It was Baggs who approached him and said, in a halting voice,
"Norb, there's a problem. There's been a drowning, and it's
Norbert gave a small, high-pitched laugh and shook his head in
disbelief. April Fool's Day was only a few days away, and maybe
this was some kind of sick joke.
"Norb, get out of the car," Law said. "We wouldn't kid around
about something like that." Norbert stepped out, and he slumped
heavily in the arms of the two men.
"I'll never forget what he said then," Baggs says. "We were both
hugging him, trying to console him. And Norb said, 'This is the
second child we've lost. I don't know if Rosemary will be able
to make it.'"
In 1969, when Rosemary and Norbert were living on the Caribbean
island of St. Croix, they endured the death of their
two-year-old daughter, Jennifer, from leukemia--a death whose
weight would not diminish until about seven years later, when
Shannon was born. As an infant Shannon had looked so much like
his late sister that Rosemary had wondered if God had given
Jennifer back to them. Rosemary and Norbert are Catholic and at
first were not inclined to give reincarnation much thought, but
they couldn't help wondering. "I'd think, This is Jennifer,"
Rosemary says. "I never said it out loud. But I'd look at
Shannon and think, Gosh. If ever there was a soul that came
back, this was it."
The Smiths moved to Kauai in 1978, when Shannon was two years
old. They bought an old farmhouse on what had been a macadamia
plantation, then renovated it and started their popular B&B.
Haole is what native Hawaiians call white foreigners and
newcomers, but through the force of his personality Shannon shed
the label and became as local as any native.
"When you went anywhere on the island, people knew him," says
his sister Colleen, 15. "I was always amazed at how popular he
was. If he drove by a store or a restaurant, people would come
running out to say hi to him."
At home, though, Shannon could be wildly temperamental. He was
famous for holding his breath until he passed out on the kitchen
floor. When he was 15, he dyed his hair pink, then shaved it
when the color started to fade. "He was trouble," says Norbert.
"He was sullen, and he wouldn't answer when you asked him a
question. He'd just grunt."
He started to change that same year, after Rosemary shipped him
off to Winners' Camp, an intense weeklong seminar for teenagers
designed to boost self-esteem and to promote leadership
qualities. "He came back different from before," Norbert says.
"He went from being an obnoxious teenager to a genuinely nice
kid. And it happened overnight. To us it seemed a miracle."
"I remember how Shannon would kick his footballs every morning
before the day started," says Delorese Gregoire, the camp's
founding director. "He would be up at five and outside kicking
by six. In the beginning a few kids showed up to shag for him,
but as time went by, more and more turned out to help. By the
end of camp nearly every kid was out there, about 90 in all,
chasing after balls. They loved him."
They loved him at Kapaa High, too, where he played soccer until
his senior year, in 1993, when he became the placekicker and the
only Caucasian player on a football team dominated by kids of
Hawaiian, Filipino and Japanese extraction. Thunderfoot, his
teammates called him.
That year Kapaa lost every game but one. Because the offense
rarely scored, Shannon had few opportunities to show off his
leg, and when he did get on the field, he looked like a
displaced person. His first field goal attempt was from the
20-yard line. The holder fumbled the snap, and the ball rolled
straight to Shannon, stopping at his feet. "Nobody had ever
bothered to tell Shannon the rules," says his brother Shawn, 27.
"He picks up the ball and looks at his coach on the sideline.
The defensive line is coming through, and Shannon's like, Oh,
s---. He throws the ball straight up in the air, and five guys
pounce on him. The pile clears, and Shannon's the last one on
the ground. His helmet's turned sideways, and he's covered with
mud and grass. 'Does that happen a lot?' he says to the coach.
The coach says, 'No, the guy's supposed to catch the ball and
hold it for you.' Shannon says, 'I thought so.'"
After attending a kicking camp on the mainland, Shannon enrolled
at Southern Oregon State, an NAIA school. He played there one
season (making three of the five field goals he attempted and 12
of 14 extra points) before transferring to Hawaii and trying out
for its team. He had so improved his skills and knowledge of
football that he wound up competing for the starting job. In the
end, though, Shannon spent the 1996 season as a reserve. On Oct.
19 against UNLV, with 10:35 left, vonAppen let him kick off. It
would be the only time he got in a game as a Rainbow Warrior.
"Shannon was a walk-on, but he never asked for anything but a
chance," says vonAppen, who before taking over at Hawaii had
been an assistant coach in the NFL and at several colleges,
including UCLA and Colorado. "He would come into my office and
sit down and say, 'How's it going, Coach? How do you like
Hawaii?' As you get older, you're more suspicious of people, and
I wondered if maybe he was trying to kiss up to me. But after a
while I saw that he was genuinely warm and open. It was just his
nature to care."
Almost every day at practice Cody vonAppen shagged balls for
Shannon. Thea was there, too, watching from a distance. At home
Fred had described Shannon as a special kid, the kind every
father would want his daughter to date. Fred called him Jeff
Bridges because he bore a striking resemblance to the movie
actor. "I appreciate the compliment and all," Shannon used to
say, "but Coach, Jeff Bridges is old."
"I'd ask him, 'Who are you dating, Shannon? Make sure you find a
good girl,'" says Thea. "We just loved him."
Fred has a stereo in his office, and as he works at his desk, he
likes to listen to classical music or jazz. "What is that?" he
sometimes quizzes his players. Most of them sit in weary silence
until he gives the answer. But Shannon always identified the
music as well as the performer. "Coach, that's Rostropovich
playing a piece by Franz Liszt."
Then one day Shannon invited the vonAppens to visit Kauai over
Easter. "I can show you things there you haven't seen before,"
The medical examiner found a contusion on Shannon's head, and
eventually a theory about his death emerged: Fighting to return
to the surface for air, he swam into a rock wall. The blow
prevented him from saving himself, but because it knocked him
unconscious, he died without the violence and pain generally
associated with drowning.
Such a scenario comforted the Smith family, as did the notion
that Shannon died a hero. UH FOOTBALL PLAYER DROWNS AFTER
RESCUING COACH'S SON, said a front-page article in The Honolulu
Advertiser. A similar headline ran in the city's Star-Bulletin.
To some of those who were at Slippery Slide that day, however,
the emphasis on Shannon as a hero invited closer review. By
ignoring dangerous water conditions and entering the
cauldronlike pool, he had made a grave error of judgment and
jeopardized not only his life but also the lives of four other
people. His story, they believed, described a cautionary tale
about the destructive power of nature rather than a moralistic
one about a young man who sacrificed his life for a fellow human
being. No one doubted, however, that Shannon had made a brave
choice at the end.
"We're damned lucky it wasn't a multiple drowning--real lucky,"
says Winston Welborn, one of the firefighters who answered the
police dispatcher's call to rush to Slippery Slide. "But I do
think that what he did was heroic, saving the boy's life. What
he did was noble and selfless. Think, though, if Shannon had
lived and Cody had drowned."
In Hawaii the storm of attention paid to Shannon quickly lifted
him beyond mere hero status. Many locals say he was an angel,
while others call him a saint. Several of his friends, fuzzy on
the details of his death but certain of his greatness, have
vowed to name their children after him. A scholarship fund was
established at Hawaii in his honor, and in August the university
dedicated its new football locker room to his memory.
As reports of his magnanimity continue to circulate, a kind of
worshipful hysteria flourishes on Kauai. In circles close to the
Smiths, Shannon is all but deified. "Something far greater than
death has happened here," says Rosemary. "Shannon seems to be
trying to tell us that he died for a message. My hairdresser
said Shannon is a legend, like Abraham Lincoln; then he said
Shannon was like Jesus Christ. Jesus died to give us a message,
and [the hairdresser] says Shannon did too."
Rosemary points to a journal Shannon kept during his senior year
of high school as proof of the depth of his thinking. One entry
reads, "Treacherous waters are extremely crazy and
unpredictable. You will always see treacherous waters on a
cloudy, stormy day. Or if you saw treacherous waters on a river
it would be right before a waterfall or right after a
waterfall." Does the notation suggest a foreboding? Or does it
show that at age 17, Shannon already knew not to challenge a
place like Slippery Slide after a storm? Racked with grief, his
mother and others see it as a testament to his almost visionary
"My mom is having a difficult time letting go," says her eldest
son, Christopher, 34. "When Jennifer died, that was a big blow,
and I guess now losing Shannon has just been too much."
To many people who knew Shannon, it is more than his memory that
lives on. To them Shannon himself lives, though in altered
states. As Norbert snored away inside their home one night this
summer, Rosemary saw Shannon as a star in the sky. In this she
was not alone. Winners' Camp participants claimed to have seen
the same star, and so did two teenage boys at a Hindu monastery
in the hills near Kapaa. "My friend and I were searching the sky
for UFOs," says one of the boys, Devasiva, 16, "when all of a
sudden we saw this star acting strangely. It was circling
around. It would disappear and then come back a couple of
The morning after the sighting, Devasiva met with 71-year-old
Gurudeva, the leader of the monastery. The boy recounted in
detail what he and his friend had witnessed, and above his long
white beard Gurudeva gave a knowing smile. "A woman named
Rosemary Smith saw the same star," he said. "You must phone and
Gurudeva is a longtime friend of the Smith family. Many years
ago, on the grounds of the monastery, Norbert and his sons
planted a small forest of rudraksha trees, which Hindus consider
sacred. In recent years Shannon's older brother Greg, a
chiropractor, has treated the monks who live there. "There's
every indication that since Shannon passed into the next world
trying to save people, he'll be born again with healing powers,"
Gurudeva told the family after Shannon's funeral. "Since
everybody loved him so much, then it makes sense he'll be born
into his brother Greg's family, as Dr. Greg's son."
When told about Shannon's physical resemblance to his sister
Jennifer and asked if the two siblings might have been one and
the same, the old Hindu thought for a moment, then said, "That
may very well be. It happens all the time."
Gurudeva's words have brought solace to Rosemary and Norbert.
So, too, have the stories told by other friends who believe
Shannon is still among them. Terri Cordell says Shannon appeared
to her as a beautiful stag deer. Cordell, 38, describes herself
as Shannon's hanai, or spiritual sister, and says she's been
"like a daughter" to Rosemary and Norbert for 20 years. Early
this summer, while vacationing in Colorado, Cordell sensed that
Shannon would soon present himself in the form of a magnificent
animal, and suddenly there he was, standing with a great spread
of antlers in an open field as she drove down a lonely mountain
road. "I felt it was his way of showing he was here, of saying,
'Don't be sad, I'm still with you,'" says Cordell.
Not everyone who loved Shannon has been blessed with such
visits. Others wrestle with his death in a private agony so
monstrous that on occasion it leaves them weeping, too exhausted
to sleep. Law turns off the TV whenever an image of flowing
water comes on the screen. Baggs, though still a friend of the
Smith family, steers clear of Rosewood, not wishing to revisit
the day it became his terrible duty to inform Norbert that his
son was dead. Last spring, whenever Chris Shinnick looked at the
stream that runs near his apartment building, he grew weak with
fear. For weeks Tim Carey couldn't shake the sensation of water
boiling over him and pulling him down.
Shawn Smith still has powerful bouts of guilt for having turned
down an invitation to join the hikers that day. He believes his
presence at Slippery Slide would have prevented Shannon's death.
Another brother, Ryan, 24, grew so depressed this summer that he
fled to Norway for three weeks. And Fred vonAppen, tormented by
the memory, blames himself for what happened. "I spend my days
searching for answers: Was there something I could have done to
prevent this?" he says. "I see it over and over again in my
mind. For as long as I live this will never go away for me."
Curiously, the person who appears least traumatized is Cody. Now
seven, he seems a happy child without a haunted understanding of
the fragility of life. "I'm sure he expects Shannon to show up
at practice one day and start kicking the ball," says Thea. At
night she sits on the edge of her son's bed and listens as he
prays in the dark. "God, bless Shannon and his family," Cody
He is in water now, and she sits close by, watching as he drums
his small, knotted hands against the surface. It is 1977. The
pool's jets stir the water in a languid motion, the currents
spinning him around.
Shannon belongs to her, and Rosemary can't help but admire his
downy white hair, his perfect little form. He is beautiful.
She has fitted him in a floating device with a sling seat, and
so feels confident of his safety. The phone rings, and she runs
off to get it. How long does she have her back turned to him? No
more than a few seconds. But when Rosemary looks back, he is
underwater, his feet where his head should be, his head no
She pulls him out, and his face is purple. She holds him in her
arms and brings him close to her chest. She can feel him
trembling as he struggles for breath. "Shannon?" she says. "I'm
sorry, baby. I'm sorry. Mommy didn't mean to leave you. Mommy
went to get the phone. Mommy's here now, Shannon. Mommy's here."
Suddenly he comes to life, inhaling a huge gasp of air, his
cries as loud and meaningful as he can make them.
"Shannon," Rosemary says again, the sound of his name echoing
through all the years.