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2 bodies retrieved after blast

Officials will return to the facility in Waikele to look into the cause

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:45 a.m. HST, Apr 10, 2011


Police and fire officials are still investigating the cause of an explosion at an underground storage facility in Waikele that killed five men Friday.

The five men, employees of an ordnance and fireworks disposal company, were all either in or just outside a concrete-enforced bunker where aerial fireworks were stored when the blast occurred shortly before 9 a.m.

They have been identified by family and friends as Bryan "Keola" Cabalce, 25, of Wahiawa; Kevin Freeman, 24, of Aiea; Justin Kelii, 29, of Kaneohe; Robert Leahey, 50, brother of sportscaster Jim Leahey; and Neil Sprankle, 24, of Aiea.

Cabalce is believed to have been the man taken to Straub Clinic and Hospital Friday afternoon with critical burns.

The other four died at the scene. A sixth man suffered minor injuries.

Investigators from the Honolulu police and fire departments, and possibly the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, are expected back today or tomorrow to continue working on determining a cause for the explosion, which destroyed one car and damaged another just outside the bunker, and scorched haole koa trees 50 feet away.

Much of yesterday's effort was devoted to recovering the bodies of two men that had remained overnight in the bunker, one of 130 concrete-enforced, tunnel-like structures built into the mountainside.

Officials said fires and explosions caused by the fireworks created a volatile environment that forced them to stop their search for the two missing men until they could reassess the situation yesterday morning.

A wheeled robot entered the bunker around 11 a.m. and located the two men, who appeared to be lifeless, said fire Capt. Gary Lum. The robot's reconnaissance also gave enough detail for authorities to determine it was safe to send people in, Lum said.

Two officers from the police Specialized Services Division entered the bunker wearing bomb disposal gear and brought the two men out on stretchers, one at a time.

Lum said one man was found 40 to 50 feet inside the tunnel entrance while the other was about 200 feet inside.

At 4 p.m., the last of several dozen police, fire, and other law enforcement and rescue personnel left the area after deeming it safe and closing the facility's doors.

"There are hazards that remain, but they're not going to be a danger to the community," said fire Capt. Terry Seelig. "That's a secured armory bunker."

Journalists arriving at the scene late yesterday afternoon found the area in front of the bunker littered with spent fireworks casings and scorched trees and brush. The remnants of the accident stood in stark contrast to the tranquil forest setting; the only sounds were from a stream and birds.

Earlier in the day, about 30 to 40 relatives and friends of the victims waited somberly with reporters at a police checkpoint about 400 yards from the recovery operation.

Gino Dayton, founder and coach of Keola O Ke Kai Canoe Club, said Freeman and Sprankle were 2004 graduates of Radford High School and best friends.

"They were like brothers," Dayton said. "Good kids. … We helped them through some things in school, got them on the right track and graduated." Both went into the military and then returned to work with Donaldson Enterprises.

Dayton said "they were like our kids" and that he and his wife worried about the work they did.

While they were no longer active members, the two would sometimes return to help and hang out with the Keehi Lagoon-based group.

Meanwhile, there was grieving in Wahiawa and along the North Shore at the passing of Cabalce, a surfer and photographer.

"Keola loved bodyboarding and he loved photography," said friend and fellow surf-photographer Neal Miyake. "He was very generous with his work and I appreciated what he did. He was really jovial, just a nice guy. It's so sad that he's gone."

There are 130 bunkers in the gulch between Waikele and Kunia owned and leased out by HIDC Small Business Storage. The underground storage facility was built by the military during World War II to store explosives.

———

Star-Advertiser reporter Michael Tsai contributed to this story.






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