Wednesday | December 13, 2017
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Prominent San Diego couple swept away in Wailuku River

The Tribune-Herald confirmed a married couple swept away early Saturday afternoon in the current of the Wailuku River in Hilo owns a boutique resort in suburban San Diego.

Police identified the woman as 62-year-old Gladys F. Novinger of Spring Valley, Calif. She was found at the bottom of Rainbow Falls and was pronounced dead at 4:25 p.m. Saturday at Hilo Medical Center.

Authorities have not officially identified the man, who hadn’t been found by press time Monday. The Tribune-Herald has learned he is Novinger’s 61-year-old husband, George T. Novinger, also of Spring Valley.

The couple owns Vineyard Hacienda, a Spanish hacienda-style inn on a 9-acre property with a Bordeaux wine grape vineyard in Rancho San Diego.

According to the Vineyard Hacienda website, Gladys Novinger was born in Peru and George Novinger is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat. He was described as multilingual and a “master swimmer.”

Both were active in community affairs and on nonprofit organization boards in the San Diego area.

Weather has hampered the search for George Novinger, with efforts suspended Sunday afternoon because of dangerous conditions. The search was resumed Monday but heavy rains caused it to be suspended at mid-morning. The county helicopter resumed flying at 3 p.m. Monday, scanning the Wailuku shoreline, until it was called away to a successful rescue involving tourists in the Kalapana lava viewing area.

The Hawaii Fire Department will resume the search today, weather permitting, but the National Weather Service in Honolulu posted a flash flood watch at 3:43 Monday afternoon. The watch, which means flash flooding is possible, is in effect until 6 p.m. tonight.

Battalion Chief Matthias Kusch said rescuers will assess this morning whether conditions are conducive to a search.

“It doesn’t make sense to insert people along the riverbanks if we can’t retrieve them with potential flash flooding,” Kusch said.

Wailuku means “waters of destruction” in Hawaiian, and numerous people have drowned in the river throughout the years. The recent rains have swollen the tributary, which empties into Hilo Bay, and added to the volume of water cascading down Rainbow Falls.

“It’s a great recreational spot provided the weather supports recreation. But rivers have currents and you’d better be a strong swimmer,” Kusch said. “If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t attempt to swim through churning waters. Even at low flow rates, I think the river is the biggest in the state.”

Police Lt. Miles Chong said it didn’t appear the Novingers were at Rainbow Falls State Park for swimming.

“It sounds like they were up there sightseeing. They were enjoying themselves up there. They had a picnic and stuff,” he said. A written police statement said the couple was attempting to cross the river above the falls when they disappeared.

Chong said visitors to Wailuku River and Rainbow Falls should “heed the warning signs.”

“There are a lot of warning signs posted not only there but at Boiling Pots,” he said.

Police opened an unattended death investigation. An autopsy was conducted Monday morning on Gladys Novinger, but the exact cause of her death is being deferred pending toxicology results.

Anyone who might have witnessed the incident or has any other information about it is asked to call the police nonemergency line at 935-3311 or contact Detective Dean Uyetake at 961-2379 or

Email John Burnett at


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