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Lantern Ceremony Brings Grieving Families Together

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

The Molokai community gathered last Saturday evening to remember the 20 lives lost 30 years ago when Aloha Island Air flight 1712 crashed in the mountains of east Molokai on Oct. 28, 1989. Family members and friends of the victims released glowing lanterns onto the water at twilight, joining other residents in remembering loved ones they’ve lost at the sixth annual Floating Lantern Ceremony.

“Sometimes in grief, you feel that if you push it away, it will make it easier, but in reality we need to remember their names, remember their faces, remember their lives and the ways that they impacted our lives,” said Barbara Helm of Hospice Hawaii Molokai, one of the event sponsors, along with Molokai’s Guzeiji Soto Mission.

As mother herself of one of the victims, Natalie, Helm said she began getting calls from families, even on the mainland, asking if any events were planned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the crash. Because the date was close to the annual lantern ceremony, Helm said she approached the event committee to see if they would want to do a special commemoration as part of the ceremony. They were all on board.

Along with those who came to remember their own loved ones, Helm said she was thrilled to see so many come to the event in connection to flight 1712.

“I was so happy to see the faces of the parents, the siblings, cousins,” said Helm. “Out of a planeload of 20 people, at least 15 people had family or friends that represented them [at the event].”

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

Five members of the Molokai High School girls volleyball team were aboard that fateful flight that crashed in east Molokai: Lea Dunham, Leilani Ahina, Aloma Spencer, Kaipo Mahiai and Natalie Helm. Their head coach, Odetta Rapanot, was also on board, along with three members of the boys volleyball team — Jared Elia, Testa Ku and Jovencio Ruiz — and MHS athletic director John Ino. Eight other passengers as well as the pilot and co-pilot also died.

The entire community was left in shock and sadness following the tragedy.

Melveena Starkey was one of the senior volleyball players who came home on an earlier flight that day. She said Oct. 28 is still a “very emotional day.”

“[There’s] a lot of wondering what life would be like if they were still here, the what ifs,” she said. “When it happened, I was 17 years old so I knew very little about life and how to get through adversities. Thirty years ago I didn’t think we’d be able to get through it, but we’re here. We press forward every year, we manage to… live life, but it never gets easy. When this time of year comes around, it’s a struggle. But with the support of our community, having others going through the same emotions as you, people can relate so it helps so you’re not the only person feeling this way.”

She said there are seven players from the team remaining, five of whom still live on Molokai.

Starkey said she now understands that “tomorrow is never promised,” and she’s learned to appreciate each day.

“It’s still hard for me to travel by plane,” she admitted.

Starkey, along with Bill Dudoit, carried a special lantern decorated with all 20 names of the flight 1712 victims onto the water last Saturday evening.

Dudoit was assistant girls volleyball coach at the time of the tragedy.

“The strength is the families and survivors and we stay close and just continue to be one family,” he said. “It’s important to help their strength [victim’s families], everybody’s strength, everybody’s mana’o, everybody’s love. It still feels like yesterday, it never goes away.”

Dudoit said that’s the reason he personally continues to coach girls volleyball — so he can share the stories of those who were lost to keep their memory and passion alive in today’s students.

“To me, right now, it brings it all back. I glance around the room and see families… it gives a good feeling… we still continue to share our love forever for the ones we lost,” he said at the lantern event.

In the dim light of the setting sun, families embraced, cried and comforted each other as they waded into the ocean by the Molokai Community Health Center, releasing decorated lanterns in honor of their loved ones.

“We never know what to expect in life… and death is a part of life and sometimes we don’t really think about it until it happens to us,” said Helm. “It’s hard. I put on a strong front but in reality, I miss my daughter… I come home and cry… Grief never ever goes away. Even though it’s been 30 years, I surprise myself at how deep I can still feel the sadness. It’s a continuing healing experience for me.”

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

Helm said she’s able to cope with her own grief by helping others live with theirs as the bereavement coordinator for Hospice. She was happy the lantern ceremony offered a chance to talk about those they lost.

“Everybody had a story. People were able to go back and remember exactly what they were doing at the moment they heard about the plane crash,” she said. “It’s important to be able to talk about it and share their story.”


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