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30 years later, Molokai remembers loved ones they lost on Flight 1712

‘I wonder what she would be like today’

Community members wade into the water carrying lanterns decorated in honor of loved ones they’ve lost. Molokai Middle School Media/Leadership Students photos

On the evening of Oct. 28, 1989, Melveena Starkey was out celebrating with friends, riding the “emotional high” of just having clinched a berth at the state high school volleyball tournament, when she heard the news.

Flight 1712, the plane carrying her Molokai High School teammates, head coach and athletic director from Maui to Molokai, had gone missing.

“It went from an emotional high to like you got sucker punched,” Starkey said.

By morning, everyone’s worst fears had been confirmed – all 20 passengers had died in a crash on the island’s east end.

“It’s a lot of emotions, it’s a lot of, even anger, you know?” Starkey said. “And then a lot of fear of flying again. Till this day I still have a fear of flying, especially during the evenings.”

Former assistant volleyball coach Bill Dudoit (left) and former Molokai High School volleyball player Melveena Starkey carry a special lantern bearing the names of all 20 victims of Flight 1712 out into the water during the sixth annual floating lantern ceremony on Molokai on Saturday night.

Every year around this time, Starkey and so many others on the island of Molokai remember the tragedy of that day and the loved ones they lost. And 30 years after the crash, they can’t help but wonder what might have been.

“Now, when I think about Natalie, I wonder what she would be like today at 45 years old,” said Barbara Helm, whose daughter was on Flight 1712. “That’s how old I was when she died. Would she be married, have children, what her career would have been. I’m more thankful at this time that I had her in my life to love, and be loved back by her.”

On Saturday night, Starkey, Helm and hundreds of other residents gathered along Molokai’s south shore to release lanterns on the ocean to honor not only the passengers of Flight 1712, but all the loved ones they’ve lost. Carrying a large lantern with the names of the 20 victims, Starkey and former assistant coach Bill Dudoit waded out into the water and gently set the lantern afloat.

“What made it even more special this year and hasn’t happened I think in the history of the Molokai Lantern Ceremony was the change in tide,” said Nichol Helm Kahale, Natalie’s sister. “The lanterns slowly went out and the tide picked up quickly after all the lanterns were placed in the water. All the lanterns returned to shore. It was as if our loved ones were letting us know they were connected to us. I joked, ‘they don’t want to leave us, too.’ ”

Kahale said the ceremony, which her mom organizes every year, helps bring healing and comfort. And it amazes her to watch as her own mother finds ways to comfort others even in the face of her own loss.

Barbara Helm speaks on Saturday during the sixth annual floating lantern ceremony that she spearheads on Molokai. Helm lost her daughter Natalie in the Flight 1712 crash.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Kahale said. “Perhaps, it is her strong faith and the belief that she will someday see Natalie again.”

A Fateful Night

The sun had already set on Oct. 28, 1989, when Aloha IslandAir Flight 1712 left Kahului at 6:25 p.m., according to the National Transportation Safety Board report. Officials lost contact with the flight at 6:36 p.m.; it was declared missing at 7:30 p.m.

Helm was working at Liberty House on the west end that night. She knew Natalie was on a flight home, so she’d called the airport to leave a message for her to catch a ride home with a friend who was also on the flight, Leilani Ahina.

“I had called the airport to be sure she’d got that message, and when I called them, they told me that the flight was missing,” Helm said. “I was pretty much in shock to hear that. And so I called my manager. They came down to the store, and I literally flew in the car from the west end to the airport.”

Helm assumed that if the plane was missing, it had gone down in the ocean, and she held out hope that the students, who were all athletes and likely could swim, could hold on until they were found.

That night, she and many other worried families camped out at the airport in Hoolehua until they were moved to the Mitchell Pauole Center in Kaunakakai. When Helm went home that night, one of her most vivid memories was the unusual shade of red crimson in the sky, a color she’d never seen before at night, and something she’d only realize the next morning might have been from the plane on fire. She went to bed in shock, freezing cold and unable to get warm even under layers of sweatshirts and socks.

Meanwhile, her husband, Larry, and a few others took a helicopter out to search for the plane.

“When the sun came up, they were at the east end, and they’re the ones that saw the plane that had crashed into the mountains,” Helm said. “That’s when we got word the next morning. It was around 6 a.m.”

Helm doesn’t remember what her husband told her about the moment they found the plane, “and he probably wouldn’t have shared with me how he felt at that time anyway.”

“There’s really so much of it, that I don’t remember,” Helm said. “I thought I was clear thinking, but when I look back, I was really in shock.”

No one saw the plane crash into the mountains in Halawa Valley, but investigators estimated that it was just around the time when “only a very dim horizon and the brightest stars are visible.” There were few lights on the ground and no navigational lights on the east end.

The board concluded that that visibility would’ve been “severely limited by precipitation, clouds and darkness,” and that the plane had flown into high terrain obscured by clouds before the crash.

“The probable cause of this accident was the decision of the captain to continue flight under visual flight rules at night into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), which obscured rising mountainous terrain,” the report said. “Contributing to the accident was the inadequate supervision of personnel, training and operations by Aloha IslandAir management. Also contributing to the accident was insufficient oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of Aloha IslandAir during a period of rapid operational expansion and corporate growth.”

As the news broke that morning, family and friends struggled to absorb the reports.

“It was just such an emotional roller coaster,” Starkey said. “Hearing the news and going to all the funerals. I think one weekend there were like four funerals going on. . . . So we went from winning a berth to hearing of the news to going to all these funerals, then having to prepare for the state tournament.”

The remaining players decided “that this is what they would’ve wanted, for us to continue and compete,” Starkey said. There were only seven of them left. Girls had to play positions they’d never played before. Others who barely got playing time during the season-olds. And it’s like, we barely knew much about life, let alone how to get through adversity. We depended a lot on our support system, the community, our families to help us get through it.

“We lost every single set. But you know, I think it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what the outcome was. It was just to get out there and do our best for all our teammates and all our friends. That was the goal.”

Comfort in Community

When Starkey thinks about that day 30 years later, questions run through her mind. What if she didn’t take an earlier flight? What if her friends were still here?

“And it’s not just last night (at the lantern ceremony), it’s every year,” Starkey said. “Oct. 28 comes by and you know a lot of people on Molokai is going through the same emotions on how much we miss them. . . . It definitely doesn’t get easier, but we try our best to move forward to live life to the fullest.”

Starkey works at Molokai Middle School now, teaching a generation of kids whose parents were their age when the crash happened. On Oct. 28, the school held a special ceremony and honored family members of the passengers, including Kahale and custodian Maria Ruiz, mother of 14-year-old Jovencio Ruiz, as well as students like the grandson of 32-year-old head coach Odetta Reyes Rapanot, the nephew of 17-year-old Lea Dunham and the great-grand-nephew of 15-year-old Testa “Travis” Ku.

To see a group of typically rowdy middle-school kids crying during the ceremony “was touching,” Starkey said.

The memories still bring tears to Helm as well. She’s learned a lot about healing and grief over the years, first through the support of professionals and later by reaching out and helping others. She’s now a Hospice bereavement coordinator, and offers support groups for families facing loss.

“Death is really such a big part of life, and to be able to understand it and help people with their feelings and emotions, it’s actually a gift to me, because we’re not alone,” Helm said. “Nobody’s really alone in it. You can walk beside people. You can’t fix it for people. But you can certainly be next to them and support them.”

But Helm’s learned you can’t do that if you haven’t found healing and figured out what makes you happy.

“I sew and I garden, and I used to paddle. I used to do aerobics,” she said. “But now that I’m older, I sew and garden. The physical body has changed. And then, of course, I have a great pleasure in being with my grandchildren.”

Helm said she’s biased as a mom, but she’ll always remember Natalie as beautiful, with green eyes and long, curly hair. She had a bubbly spirit, and was the “tita sister” who loved to talk, “sometimes too much, the teachers would tell me,” said Helm, who attributed that to a combination of Italian and Portuguese heritage.

Natalie was the fourth of five children, and she loved people – everyone from babies to the elderly. She volunteered as a candy-striper at the hospital. She studied Japanese so she could be an interpreter for her dad’s famous wagon ride attraction on the east end. And she could sell anything to anyone. When her older sister would come home from Kamehameha Schools with a box of fundraiser chocolates, Natalie would take it to Molokai High School and sell it all.

Helm has so many memories, but part of grief is the fear of forgetting things and the guilt when you eventually do.

“Losing loved ones is hard emotionally,” Helm said. “I’ve learned that there never was a promise that children would outlive their parents. There can be some understanding why things happen, but then, not all questions can be answered. Why some people die young and others live to a much older age. It’s a mystery to me.”

Some things they’ll never forget — the names and the faces of Flight 1712: Athletic Director John Ino (39), Head Coach Odetta Reyes Rapanot (32), Lea Dunham (17), Leilani Ahina (16), Nanceen “Kaipo” Mahiai (15), Natalie Helm (15), Aloma Spencer (15), Testa “Travis” Ku (15), Jared Elia (14), Jovencio Ruiz (14), Colette Loke Kekalia (26), Rodrigo “Rudy” Senica (33), Nancy Pierce (37), Hank Gabriel, John and Christina Craig, Peter and Elizabeth Wiley, Capt. Bruce Pollard (30) and First Officer Phil Helfrich (27).

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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