WAILUKU - Maui County officials and Lanai residents expressed shock, disbelief and sadness Thursday, after a plane crash Wednesday night on Lanai killed two Maui County employees and the pilot and injured three other county workers.
All of the county employees had been attending a Lanai Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night and were heading back to Maui around 9:05 p.m. on a chartered Maui Air flight that crashed shortly after takeoff.
Although the names of the victims were not released, Mayor Alan Arakawa said at a news conference Thursday that the two employees who died were women, while the three hospitalized at The Queen's Medical Center on Oahu were men.
Former Maui County Planning Department Director Kathleen Aoki covers her eyes Thursday as she hugs Planning Department staffer Carolyn Takayama-Corden (obscured), who worked closely with one of the victims in the plane crash on Lanai. The two were among many employees and friends who attended Mayor Alan Arakawa’s news conference Thursday regarding the plane crash on Lanai on Wednesday night. During the news conference, sobs could be heard and many employees embraced one another.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
Five of the six Maui County employees worked in the Planning Department. Those killed were identified by Lanai residents and those familiar with the meeting as Kathleen Kern, a planner with the Long-Range Planning Division; and Tremaine Balberdi, a Planning Department secretary. The same sources identified the other passengers as Deputy Corporation Counsel James Giroux, planner Doug Miller with the Long-Range Planning Division and Mark King with Geographic Information Systems in the Long-Range Planning Division.
On Thursday morning, Planning Department staffers embraced other county employees who came by to comfort them. The staffers appeared somber and even hung a photo of a black ribbon on one of the Planning Department division's doors. The employees of the department with 64 people were told to direct media inquiries to their superiors.
But one Planning Department staffer, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Maui News that there were feelings of shock, somberness and devastation.
"We are trying to deal with it," the staffer said.
The situation was kind of surreal, just in having seen their co-workers and friends yet knowing that they were gone. On Feb. 21, there was a short informal anniversary celebration for Kern and Miller to mark their time at the Planning Department.
"Thank God there were survivors," the staffer added.
Lanai Planning Commission Member Stuart Marlowe, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said Thursday that they were "all in shock." He found out about the crash Wednesday night after leaving the meeting that ended around 8:20 p.m. and declined further comment.
As aviation officials begin their investigation, Lanai residents wondered about the cause of the crash.
Christopher Harvey said he went to see what he thought was a brush fire and learned that it was a plane crash.
"It didn't look very big," he said of the flames.
He said he heard no loud boom or explosion while attending church Wednesday night in Lanai City around the time of the crash.
"Everyone is kind of wondering what (the crash) was caused by or what happened. There was really, really strong winds," Harvey said.
He estimated winds were in the 30-to-40 mph range with possible higher gusts.
Back on Maui, the county government family mourned.
"As you know this is a tough time to talk; it's been a very, very emotional day for all of us," said Maui County Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa.
No one really thinks about the planners and the county attorneys as risking their lives when often traveling to Lanai and Molokai "to service our sister islands who are part of our county," she said.
"This is putting your life on the line, when you go on a small plane flying to Lanai and Molokai. You don't stop to think about what might happen. This brings it all home," Baisa said.
She added that she knew all of the staffers.
"They were family," she said. "This is a small little family."
Despite the tragedy, Baisa said that Maui County employees must continue flying to Lanai and Molokai, adding that perhaps some meetings could be done by "electronic means" or having workers stay on the island overnight and taking ferries.
Some county staffers may be reluctant to fly after Wednesday's crash, the Planning Department staffer, who wished to remain anonymous, said. Although there is ferry service to Lanai, the staffer noted that economical lodging is scarce, which makes taking the ferry a more expensive and less convenient option.
Condolences and well-wishes poured in for the victims and survivors Thursday from Maui County politicians to billionaire Larry Ellison's Pulama Lana'i, which oversees 98 percent of the island.
"I wanted to express my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of (Wednesday) night's plane crash," said state Rep. Mele Carroll, whose district includes Lanai, in a statement. "I know this is an unbearable loss for them to face. The two county employees and the pilot are in my prayers. I want the survivors, their families and the Maui County community to know that we are all behind them and ready to support them in whatever they need."
State Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district also includes Lanai, said in a statement: "It is with great sadness that I extend my most heartfelt condolences to the friends and families of those who passed in (Wednesday) night's fatal plane crash on Lanai. I continue to keep the survivors, who are currently under the care of Queen's Medical Center, in my thoughts and prayers."
English, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and International Affairs, added that "as a unique and isolated county, small chartered planes are necessary for travel within the county. As such, air travel safety is an issue that is highly important to us.
"Maui Air had a previously unblemished record, and I trust that a thorough investigation of the crash will occur. For those traveling by air to and from Lanai, I want to assure you that services are safe and will continue."
Pulama Lana'i offered condolences as well.
"We are deeply saddened about the loss of Maui County officials, the pilot and those injured in (Wednesday) night's plane crash," the company statement said. "Our prayers are with their families, friends and colleagues at this most difficult time."
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com. Staff Writer Lila Fujimoto and Managing Editor Lee Imada contributed to this report.