Woman was frequent visitor; then ‘Hawaiian dream’ became reality for her

A Kihei woman who died in a plane crash on Lanai was passionate about planning and enjoyed her job as a Maui County planner, despite its stresses, her family said.

Kathleen Kern also was an athlete who loved long-distance swimming and had competed in the Lanai-to-Maui swim race, her older brother Kenneth Kern said by telephone Friday morning from his home in Waialae on Oahu.

“She liked her work; she liked living in Hawaii,” he said. “Her job took most of her time.

“I think she worked from 9 in the morning to 6 at night.”

The family of the 50-year-old woman shared photos and information about her Friday, two days after the Wednesday-night plane crash that also killed 52-year-old Kahului resident Tremaine Balberdi, a county planning department secretary; and pilot Richard “Dick” Rooney, 66, of Spreckelsville.

Three other passengers – 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 – were injured in the crash reported at 9:23 p.m., shortly after the Piper Chieftain twin-engine plane took off from Lanai Airport.

The plane was engulfed in flames after going down about 1 mile southwest of the airport in an area known as Miki Basin, officials said.

The county had chartered the Maui Air plane to fly employees back to Kahului Airport after they attended a Lanai Planning Commission meeting that was scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m.

County officials said the three surviving passengers were airlifted to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, where they were hospitalized after the crash. At last report, Giroux was reported to be in serious condition, while Miller and King were in critical condition.

According to the county, Giroux called 911 to report the crash and said that he had pulled two of his co-workers away from the fire as best he could because they could not move on their own.

All three survivors suffered second- and third-degree burn injuries of varying severity to their hands and faces, Mayor Alan Arakawa said during a news conference Thursday at the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku.

Also at the news conference, Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey said that from what she had heard about Giroux’s actions, “it’s really heroic.”

“So we’re really proud of him,” Lutey said.

Reached by telephone Friday afternoon at the hospital, Giroux declined to talk about the crash but said he was recovering from burns on his hands.

“I’m doing good,” he said. “I’m recovering. Right now, it’s just about taking care of the burns.

“They reported nothing broken on me. How do you get off a plane like that and not have something broken? No broken bones. It’s just crazy.”

The 43-year-old Giroux has been a deputy corporation counsel for about 10 years and previously worked in private practice and as a deputy public defender on Maui.

Miller is with the Long-Range Planning Division and is formerly from Reno, Nev., according to his Facebook page. He studied at Portland State University and the University of Nevada, Reno.

His last post was Wednesday. He writes about looking out from his sixth-floor office during lunch, when he could “see whales splashing off in the distance around Kahului Bay.”

“I’m reminded of last weekend’s amazing experiences out on the water,” he wrote and describes his trek last weekend to Kanaha Beach Park, where he used he new stand-up paddle board.

He also describes his encounters with turtles that were curious of him along with seeing whales playing.

He was successful at catching waves, as well.

“I remember thinking: wow – this is really incredibly fun – life doesn’t get much better than his.”

According to his page, Miller also enjoys tango and water sports.

King is an analyst with the Geographic Information Systems in the Long-Range Planning Division.

Attempts to reach his family Friday were unsuccessful.

Kern, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, began working for the county Planning Department in 2009, when she moved to Hawaii.

Her brother said that the family has had a condominium in Kihei since the early 1980s and their parents visited Hawaii yearly since the 1960s.

“Kathleen was introduced at an early age to Hawaii and loved visiting and finally being able to live the Hawaiian dream,” her family said.

She was single and lived with her cats in a house she bought in Kihei, her brother said. In addition to swimming, she enjoyed fencing and helping stray animals.

“She was pretty friendly, like the rest of our family,” he said. “She talked to anybody.”

Kern also read a lot and was a night owl, her brother said. “She was not a morning person.”

Although not currently, Kern had tried to bicycle to work every day for a while, her brother said.

Kern was the youngest by 12 years of eight children who now live in many locations around the world, including England, Canada, Australia and Hawaii.

She had several degrees, including a bachelor’s degree from Trent University and a master’s degree from York University – both in Ontario, Canada – and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She was a doctorate candidate at the University of Washington.

“Kathleen was passionate about urban planning from a very young age and believed that public spaces were critical to the functioning of communities,” according to her family. “She had a particular interest in the process of planning and the involvement of the community in that process.”

Kenneth Kern last saw his youngest sister before Christmas.

He said “she felt a little stressed at work.” Nevertheless, she enjoyed her job. “Her job was most of her life – and her swimming.”

Kenneth Kern said that his sister swam with a group of friends that she met up with every weekend.

When Kenneth came to Maui, he and his sister would go swimming together.

Speaking about the plane crash, he said, “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not her fault. What can you do? I think her sisters are really upset. We are all upset.

“Things were looking up for her. She was fine and liked Maui.”

Although he and his sister were the only ones who lived in Hawaii, family members visited often, Kenneth Kern said.

He said that their sister-in-law, who was married to their deceased brother, is vacationing on Maui now. She was staying in Wailea when she learned about the crash.

The sister-in-law knew that Kathleen was going to Lanai and “figured it out” when she saw the crash on the news Wednesday night, Kenneth Kern said.

He said that the family called the emergency room at Queen’s that night and found out that no female victims were taken there. Around 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Planning Director Will Spence called Kenneth Kern to say his sister had died.

Police said remains would need to be identified through dental records, said Kenneth Kern, who, as a retired anesthesiologist, has seen many traumatic experiences. “She was in the fire, too, you see,” he said.

An autopsy is scheduled for Monday, he said. Her funeral will most likely be private, and her remains will be cremated.

Rooney, who was piloting the plane, is listed as an officer along with Sheila Magers of Maui Island Air Inc., an air tour and charter company doing business as Maui Air.

“This guy was a top-notch pilot,” said Deputy Public Defender Jim Rouse, who estimated that he had been on a Maui Air charter flight at least 100 times since 1996 as part of his job. “He’s an outstanding pilot. I have no doubt about that.”

Rooney was one of two company pilots who would fly attorneys and Judiciary staff on charter flights when they traveled to Lanai and Molokai for Family and District Court sessions, Rouse said. Judiciary staff also would charter flights to Hana for District Court.

“He was part of the Family Court ohana, really, both of these pilots,” he said. “You get to know these people once a month, travel with them. The guy’s got so many hours of flight time in. He was experienced at his job.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration website, no previous accidents or incidents were reported for the airplane manufactured in 1975.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com. Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.