John Combs heard the nervousness in his daughter's voice.

The Hellgate High senior, calling from Hawaii, phoned her dad early Friday morning to reassure him that everyone was OK, that the big waves came crashing ashore around 3 a.m. Honolulu time, and that every student was accounted for.

"You could tell from the sound of her voice," said Combs, the Missoula County Public Schools fine arts director. "It was a little higher-pitched than normal."

Elena Combs, the Hellgate flag team captain and clarinetist, is one of around 80 Hellgate band students who are scheduled to take part in the Honolulu Festival and its parade on Sunday.

A devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan set off an enormous tsunami, sweeping hundreds to their death and triggering massive fires and other devastation along the Japanese coast. It took several hours for the tsunami to reach Hawaii, and when it did it had lost much of its force.

Students were rousted from bed when alarms were sounded all through Honolulu shortly before midnight, said Hellgate band director Leon Slater.

"We had gone into everybody's rooms and made sure everyone knew what was going on," said Slater.

The bottom six floors of the Waikiki Beach hotel the students are staying in were evacuated. The Hellgate students are roomed in the 14th to 25th floors. Meanwhile, parents and chaperones went out and bought extra food and water "in case we had to hunker down for a couple of days," said Slater.

The students, who had left Missoula at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, were exhausted by the time they went to bed. Many of them slept through the alarm, and nobody stayed up to watch the waters rise 10 feet.

Slater said the view from his balcony was surreal, because "hundreds of boats were pulled out of the marina, and they were all just lined up on the beach."

Friday was the students' day off, with no performances scheduled. The beaches were expected to be opened later in the day on Friday, said Slater, and the incident is not expected to disrupt plans for the festival or its downtown parade on Sunday.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at


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