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Risks slow probe of Waikele blast

  • Dennis Oda /

Nearly a week after an explosion in a hillside cave killed five men and injured another in Waikele, the families of some of the victims still have no idea what triggered the blast.

"We don’t know anything more about why this accident happened," said Debo­rah Dulatre, whose nephew Justin Kelii, 29, of Kaneohe was killed Friday morning. "We have no idea what happened. They haven’t told us anything."

The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office did not release the identities of any of the victims yesterday.

Sports broadcaster Jim Leahey, the older brother of victim Robert Leahey, 50, said positive identification "is going to take a while."

In his brother’s case the medical examiner has requested dental rec­ords, Leahey said.

Family and friends previously had identified the dead men as Kelii and Leahey; Bryan "Keola" Cabalce, 25, of Wahiawa; Kevin Freeman, 24, of Aiea; and Neil Sprankle, 24, of Aiea.

Investigators from various city, state and federal agencies returned to the former military bunker yesterday and cautiously re-entered the sealed cave, concerned about triggering another explosion, said Hono­lulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig.

"The hazards make it slower because safety is a concern," Seelig said. "They have to be cautious in how they operate."

Mourners set up memorials to the victims, but Seelig implored people not to cross into cordoned-off areas.

"We’re asking people to please be respectful of the investigation," Seelig said. "It’s best to stay out of the area. … The way that we have to proc­ess this does involve some risk to the responders. Of course, we’re moving cautiously, which makes us move perhaps a little slower than traditional fire investigations."

Realtor Peter Savio, who owns the complex of about 130 underground bunkers, said he believes the employees of Donaldson Enterprises Inc. were dismantling confiscated, illegal fireworks for disposal.

"They still have unexploded ordnance in the cave," Savio said. "I wouldn’t go in. If you’re walking on the powder, you could set it off."

Savio had no clues about what triggered the blast, saying, "It could have been anything. It could have been a cellphone, static electricity, friction. But it’s all speculation."

Donaldson Enterprises was one of Savio’s first tenants when the company took out a lease to store and dismantle confiscated fireworks about four years ago, Savio said.

"We checked them out, and we never had any problems with them," he said. "The cave was inspected by federal firearms people and by the city. They had a good reputation."

Since the explosion, Savio’s property manager has been talking to Donaldson Enterprises officials about moving their remaining fireworks into another cave.

"Even with this accident, we still anticipate they will stay on as a tenant, although in a different cave," Savio said. "This is a safe place to store these types of materials. You don’t want it stored near you. … They have no place left to go. They have to store the products they have.

"To a certain degree it’s a public service," Savio said.

Donaldson Enterprises officials have asked for permission to bless the cave and to bring families into the area for a ceremony, Savio said.

"It’s unfortunate," he said. "We’d like to think it didn’t have to happen. But if it did happen, this was the place to have it happen."

DONALDSON Enterprises sent flowers to Kelii’s home in Kaneohe near Castle High School, where he was raised by his grandparents and graduated from Castle in 2000, said his aunt, Dulatre.

And while the company has not spoken to the media, company official Mike Donaldson visited Kelii’s home Saturday and Monday night, she said.

Donaldson grew up in the same neighborhood with Kelii and some of the other victims, Dulatre said.

"He said how sorry he was and he knew the boys personally, and how sorry he was that this happened," Dulatre said. "He is taking it hard because of the friendship that he had from when they were younger boys."

For now, Kelii’s family is less concerned about the cause of the blast and more focused on "honoring Justin’s life and healing," she said. "Everybody’s in mourning."

"Wherever he went, Justin was people’s strength," Dulatre said. "We don’t know what we’re going to do without him."

No services have been scheduled for either Kelii or Leahey.

Ryoko Donaldson, the widow of the founder of Donaldson Enterprises, called Jim Leahey after the explosion and offered to send flowers, which he declined.

She offered no clues to the cause of the blast, and Leahey did not press her.

"She was very upset, very upset," Leahey said. "It’s going to take a while to figure out the reason why this happened."

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