A breaking news flash on The Maui News web page was my first alert that after being missing for more than two weeks in the forest above Makawao, physical therapist and yoga instructor Amanda Eller had been found Friday. She was alive.
By Saturday morning it was the lead story on national news media, and the culmination of spectacular coverage by Maui journalists. I had been following the search for the missing hiker from the beginning. Even from thousands of miles away, I felt like I had been to the base camp set up in the Makawao Forest Reserve thanks to Kehaulani Cerizo’s reporting.
Kehaulani made the search team’s innovative use of technology understandable to those of us who could only read about it. She conveyed the positive spirit and unflagging hopes of the family and army of 1,000 volunteers . . . in defiance of all the other more sinister outcomes playing out across people’s minds.
Despite the many hours I had personally spent on the serene Makawao Reserve trails, following the story from this distance added to the sense of watching a movie. Even from this far away, the jubilation and tears were contagious.
Amanda’s friend and one of the search leaders, Javier Cantellops, had been in the helicopter that spotted her. He gave an interview on CNN full of something rarely seen on TV these days: pure joy. He pointed out that the awesome, dangerous power of nature is inseparable from Maui’s sublime beauty. There were lessons to learn: Don’t hike alone. Sure, you can turn off your cellphone . . . just don’t leave it in the car.
The broad grin on his face was the definition of aloha. He signed off with a shaka.
Search organizer Chris Berquist and Troy Helmer had also been in the helicopter that first spotted her. The smiling faces of the three rescuers surrounding Amanda minutes after finding her was a portrait of heroism, the shot seen round the world.
Berquist summed it all up in a message to the volunteers that quickly spread on social media:
“With drive and love and perseverance, this community brought her home! . . . Even if we started off as strangers helping strangers, we were all close to this one by the end, and we can all smile and cry and laugh together now! . . . Where else in the world can you find a local community that has hikers that don’t quit, FAA drone pilots, Heli Pilots, Rapellers, Free Divers, K-9 Sniffers, Media and Data Tech experts, Local Resources like Hunters, DLNR, Fire, PD, EMI, MSAR, KSAR, Catering services, Jeep Clubs, Horse teams, People with Quads, Dirtbikes, Side by Sides, Ranch land Access,The Kitchen Sink!!!! All Right Here! Our home! All working tirelessly to bring Amanda home. Makes you proud to be Maui!”
“Miracle” is a word misused and overused in contexts from advertising to the so-called New Age. This time, it’s the right word. Finding Amanda alive wasn’t the only miracle in this story. The people of the island were a miracle, too.
It’s the perfect Maui story, one that could only have happened on Maui, one that only Maui can share with the rest of the world.
It’s also a case where despite some destructive postings (social media can bring out the worst in people with faulty moral compasses), technology was a good thing, demonstrating what an invaluable enhancement it can be to our lives.
Technology helped bring Amanda home. And it brings me home each week, too. It is this column’s lifeblood, my personal “Maui Connection” for all these months I’ve been away.
From being stranded alone in the forest for weeks, tested to her core, Amanda Eller woke the next day in the hospital, thrust into the national media spotlight, suddenly a symbol far larger than herself.
It’s her incredible story, but she wasn’t its only hero. Almost everyone involved was a hero.
We need more stories like that, more spirit like that. Miracles are in short supply. It’s up to us all to create more of them, even if they don’t make it to CNN.
I expect we’ll be seeing the movie version, maybe premiering at the Maui Film Festival in a year or two. In the meantime, this year’s 20th-anniversary festival has announced another honoree: Gina Rodriguez, best known as the Emmy-winning star of the award-winning television comedy “Jane the Virgin,” will accept the 2019 Navigator Award.
She joins a stellar list of honorees already announced for the 19th Maui Film Festival, returning June 12-16 to the Wailea Resort and the Maui Film Festival. The schedule has been posted, too. You’ll find it, and more information, at mauifilmfestival.com.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.