Mayor Alan Arakawa said that Maui County employees were deeply affected by a plane crash Wednesday night on Lanai that killed the pilot and two Department of Planning employees and injured three others.
"It's like a family," Arakawa said Thursday at a news conference. "It's hard. Any kind of loss like this really hits hard."
Stopping to compose himself at times during the news conference, Arakawa said that county employees work together and get to know one another.
Police Thursday cordoned off the site of a Wednesday night Maui Air plane crash on Lanai.
RUSSELL DE JETLEY photo
Deputy Corporation Counsel James Giroux (right) is shown at a Maui Planning Commission meeting in May 2011. Giroux is reported to have pulled two people from the burning wreckage of a plane crash Wednesday night on Lanai. Also shown in the photo are Planning Director Will Spence (left) and Commissioner Kent Hiranaga.
The Maui News file photo
This twin-engine Piper PA31, shown departing Kahului on Aug. 13, 2007, is the same aircraft that crashed Wednesday night on Lanai.
"We lost two of our own last night," Arakawa said. "One of them was a longtime employee who worked for us for decades. The other was a bright young planner who was dedicated to her job serving the public.
"Any kind of loss like this really hurts."
Arakawa said that the two employees who died were women, while the three hospitalized passengers were men.
Police did not release names of the victims. Maui police spokesman Lt. William Juan said that the bodies were recovered Thursday from the crash scene and flown to Maui for autopsies. He said families of the victims had been notified but the bodies would need to be identified before names were released.
The Planning Department employees and a deputy corporation counsel had been on Lanai on Wednesday to staff a Lanai Planning Commission meeting scheduled to run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The county chartered a return flight on Maui Air that left at about 9:05 p.m.
Lanai residents who were familiar with those attending the meeting identified the victims 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.
According to a county news release, the crash was reported at 9:23 p.m., when police emergency dispatch received a 911 call from a man who said that he had been in a plane crash.
Lanai fire crews were dispatched to Lanai Airport and didn't see anything, said Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga. "From there, they investigated," Mainaga said, and located the crash site in an area of former pineapple fields known as Miki Basin, about 1 mile southwest of the airport.
In the dark and in terrain of 3-foot-high grass, firefighters "had to be extra cautious," Mainaga said. Goodfellow Bros. employees assisted by cutting a road so firefighters could reach the crash scene.
There, Mainaga said, firefighters found the three surviving victims. "The aircraft was fully engulfed by the time they got there," he said.
While police officers tended to the victims, firefighters extinguished the blaze and discovered two victims in the plane. Police said that one body was found outside the plane.
Firefighters reached the scene within 12 minutes of the emergency call, Mainaga said.
Lanai resident Russell de Jetley, who went to the scene Wednesday night after the crash, said it was a moonless night, slightly overcast but fairly clear with good visibility and no fog. He said the temperature was in the 50s.
According to the county, the 911 caller was the deputy corporation counsel, who said he had pulled two of his co-workers away from the fire because they couldn't move on their own.
He was reported to be in serious condition, while the two other survivors were in critical condition Thursday at The Queen's Medical Center on Oahu, where the three men were flown after the crash.
Arakawa said that the survivors suffered second- and third-degree burns on their faces and hands of differing severity. He said that the men were undergoing treatment Thursday.
"We may have had more casualties had one of the survivors not been able to move the other two away from the plane," Arakawa said. "This is a tragedy that stunned our community. But we're also thankful for those whose lives were spared."
In a news release Thursday afternoon, the county said that Giroux was asking the media to help reassure his family members and friends that he does not have life-threatening injuries and that he is recovering. He wanted to spread the word "because his name has been mentioned numerous times in the news and in social media," according to the news release.
County Managing Director Keith Regan, Planning Director Will Spence and Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong were among county employees who went to Oahu on Thursday morning to meet with the plane crash survivors.
At the news conference Thursday in the mayor's office conference room on the ninth floor of the Kalana O Maui building, a staffer handed out black ribbons. Those attending included some friends and co-workers of the employees who had been on the plane. As county officials spoke, sobs could be heard from some in attendance.
"We're devastated," said Deputy Planning Director Michele Chouteau McLean. "There really isn't anything more to say than that."
She said a team of planners, GIS staff and support secretaries from the Planning Department's 14-employee Long-Range Planning Division has been traveling to Lanai regularly for many months to staff Lanai Planning Commission meetings on the Lanai Community Plan update. The employees have traveled sometimes by ferry but more typically by chartered plane, McLean said, with some meetings scheduled in the evening to encourage community participation.
She described the Long-Range Planning Division as "a really tight, hardworking, wonderful core of people."
"Our hearts go out to the victims' families," McLean said. "We just ask for everyone's thoughts for the recovery of folks still in the hospital."
Added Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey: "It's been a rough day. Our office is somber."
The crash of the twin-engine Piper PA31 occurred under unknown circumstances and the plane burned, according to Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the Federal Aviation Administration Pacific Division. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, with the NTSB the lead investigative agency, he said.
At the crash site Thursday morning, de Jetley said that he saw debris but no sign of a fuselage. From his vantage point at a police line about 600 feet away, he said all that was visible was a piece of metal sticking out of the ground.
"There is nothing left of the plane," de Jetley said.
He said police told him there were no seats or fuselage windows, and that the plane had fallen apart.
Police were securing the crash scene for NTSB investigators.
The lights were off at the Maui Air Volcano Air Tours booth at the commuter terminal of the Kahului Airport on Thursday, and no Maui Air staff or passengers were waiting at the terminal around 11:30 a.m. There were no signs posted about a closure or cancellation of flight charters.
A desk agent at the neighboring Mokulele Airlines booth said that all Maui Air flights had been canceled for the day.
Multiple calls to the Maui Air office Thursday were not answered.
The airline company employs three twin-engine, 10-seat Piper Chieftain airplanes, according to its website. Established as an airline charter company in June 1993, it flies tours from Kapalua and Kahului airports on Maui, around Hawaii Island and back. It also offers private charters "anywhere in Hawaii," the site said.
"Maui Air is a FAA certified and inspected air carrier with a perfect safety record," according to the website. "Our pilots have the most experience flying charters and tours of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, and we are the only fixed-wing air charter company on Maui with air-conditioned airplanes allowed to fly low scenic tours over Volcanoes National Park."
According to the FAA, the Piper Chieftan that crashed was manufactured in 1975.
In a statement issued Thursday, state Sen. J. Kalani English - who represents Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe - said that such small chartered planes are needed for travel in the "unique and isolated county."
"Maui Air had a previously unblemished record, and I trust that a thorough investigation of the crash will occur," English said. "For those traveling by air to and from Lanai, I want to assure you that services are safe and will continue."
The crash Wednesday night followed three incidents involving small airplanes in Maui County in recent months.
On Dec. 11, state Health Director Loretta Fuddy died after a Makani Kai Air turboprop plane crash landed in the ocean shortly after leaving Kalaupapa, Molokai, for Oahu. The pilot and eight other passengers survived.
The same kind of plane - a Cessna Grand Caravan - operated by Mokulele Airlines made an emergency landing Oct. 21 on Piilani Highway in Wailea after the crew reported a loss of engine power shortly after leaving Kahului Airport for Waimea-Kohala Airport. The eight passengers and two pilots aboard the plane were uninjured.
Another emergency landing was reported June 16 in brush near the shoreline in Waiehu when a Piper Cherokee on a flight from Honolulu to Kahului was downed near Lower Waiehu Beach Road. The pilot and three passengers weren't injured.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writers Eileen Chao and Melissa Tanji contributed to this report.