Friends, family share stories of Balberdi’s kindness, compassion

KAHULUI – Tremaine Balberdi, one of three victims killed in a plane crash on Lanai last month, was remembered Saturday morning as a beloved wife, mother, sister and co-worker during her funeral service at King’s Cathedral.

“She played our older sister until the very end,” said younger sister Sherrilyn Romena Nishikuni to the crowd of at least 1,000. “She showed us and taught us so much. . . . She never made me feel like I was a burden. She always protected me.”

Balberdi, 52, was born on Oahu but grew up on Maui and graduated from Baldwin High School in 1979. She married her husband, George, three years later and had their only child, Malia, the following year.

Balberdi began working for Maui County in 1988 and was the secretary to the county’s boards and commissions.

Council members, county workers, Mayor Alan Arakawa and many other friends and family members shared stories of her kindness, compassion and character.

“Tremaine was a hard worker and true professional,” said Suzette Esmeralda, who worked with Balberdi for 22 years in the Planning Department. “She made certain her work was done on time, that her board meetings ran smoothly and showed pride in her work.”

The two co-workers and many others would routinely hang out together, and Balberdi was famous for decorating the office, Esmeralda said.

She said that Balberdi had begun to talk more recently about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and possibly retiring in five years.

“We at the Planning Department will never be the same,” Esmeralda said, while praying for Balberdi’s family.

“Tremaine wasn’t just a co-worker to some of us. She was our friend. She was someone very special to us, and we will never forget her. We love her, and we miss her so much.”

Balberdi was the oldest of five children, with three brothers and one sister, and Nishikuni said she was “basically the one that was in charge,” since their parents both worked.

“When me and my brothers would come home from school, we had to do our chores. We had to do our homework and then we could play,” Nishikuni said. “She always took care of us.”

She recalled being taken care of as early as kindergarten, when Balberdi, who was around 11 years old and attending a school dance, came to pick her up after school.

The school “called her, and she came to get me and she said, ‘Why are you crying?'” Nishikuni said. “I said, ‘Because nobody came to get me.’ Then she told me, ‘You’ll never have to cry because I’ll always be here for you.’

“And then I ended up going to the school dance too, at 5 years old,” she remembered.

The day before the Feb. 26 plane crash, Nishikuni had her last day with her older sister.

“We spent the whole day golfing and riding the cart – she’s a wild lady driving those carts. It was so much fun,” she said, adding that they talked about seeing the Summer Olympic Games in 2016 and going skydiving. “Little did I know that would be the last time I’d see her smile and hear those precious words: I love you, my sister. I will always miss her. I’m amazed at how much people are here and how much she has impacted each and every one of your lives. Thank you so much.”

Balberdi’s surviving family members include her grandson, Geovanni Breucop.

Also killed in the crash of a twin-engine Piper Chieftain were pilot Richard “Dick” Rooney, 66, of Spreckelsville and county planner Kathleen Kern, 50, of Kihei. Deputy Corporation Counsel James Giroux, 43, of Haiku survived the crash and pulled out two other survivors – planner Douglas Miller, 57, of Kahului and Mark King, 43, of Kihei, a county geographical information systems analyst. The survivors were all hospitalized on Oahu.

National Transportation Safety Board officials are continuing to investigate the crash of the aircraft that occurred at about 9:30 p.m. Feb. 26 shortly after the plane departed Lanai Airport for Kahului. The aircraft had been chartered by Maui County to take Planning Department officials and Giroux to Lanai for a Lanai Planning Commission meeting.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at