Hawai'i values impelled 9/11 hero
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By Shaaroni Wong
Special to the Advertiser
Along the wall in the stairway of Isaac Ho'opi'i's Virginia townhouse are photographs and tributes to the man whose heroism on Sept. 11 saved 18 people from the inferno touched off as a commercial airliner piloted by terrorists slammed into the Pentagon.
Advertiser library photo Nov. 28, 2001
Isaac Ho'opi'i, a former Wai'anae resident, remains humble through his new-found fame as a 9/11 hero.
Advertiser library photo Nov. 28, 2001
"We didn't want to put them up," said his wife, Gigi. "We kept them in the basement for awhile, but people kept framing things and giving them to us as gifts ... so we put them up."
Ho'opi'i, 39, smiles at his friends' reactions. "Some of them knew what I did and wanted to give me a silver platter. That's not for me ... don't give me a silver platter unless there's food on top it."
All the attention he has received has been overwhelming for Ho'opi'i, but he has managed to take in this new fame with grace and humility.
He believes his upbringing gave him the steadiness and patience to walk back into the flames again and again to find people and lead or carry them to safety. Without a mask to protect his eyes, and clad only in his short-sleeved uniform, he went back until the smoke drove him out.
"In Hawai'i, family is first," he said.
"The only thing that was going through my mind is that the people there have family members ... it goes back to the heritage where I was brought up, with everyone so family orientated."
Though he could no longer see in front of him, he could hear the voices.
"'Walk to my voice ... talk to me,'" he called to people inside, hoping they'd follow his voice to safety.
Though he worked almost around the clock for days to help workers at the Pentagon, it haunted him that he hadn't done enough.
"He knew they were in there, and he thought they had all died," said Gigi.
It wasn't until three weeks after the attacks that he learned his strategy had worked and he had made a far bigger difference than he knew.
On Oct. 4, The Washington Post featured a man named William Sinclair who spoke of a "guardian angel" who had helped him and seven others make it out of the building.
When Ho'opi'i read the article, he excitedly called Gigi at work. "Gigi it was me; they got out, they got out!" he said, elated.
Ho'opi'i told her how much he wanted to talk to Sinclair, so Gigi called him. The two men met on the "Today" show and told their story last October.
Today, Ho'opi'i admits that he often thinks about Sept. 11. "Being in the heat of things, how can you not?" he said. Yet despite all of the accolades he received for his heroism, he does not look back on that day with pride.
"Even now I think, did I do enough ... after finding out the total number of deaths, about 189 people, you just think, what if ... "
A burly bear of a man at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 260 pounds, Ho'opi'i grew up with a passel of siblings and family dogs and the freedom to roam and spear-fish along the Wai'anae Coast. It was the spear-fishing that gave him years of experience calming his breathing, slowing his heartbeat, and ignoring discomfort.
"When you're in the water for eight to 12 hours, you cannot feel your hands and feet," he said. In spear-fishing, the fisherman dives under water without an oxygen tank because the bubbles scare away the fish and cloud vision. As divers become more advanced they learn to stay underwater longer, with breathing slowed.
Ho'opi'i left Hawai'i 14 years ago when he entered the military. It was in Virginia that he met his wife-to-be, a nurse from the Washington area, with two young children, Jeff and Bess, from a previous marriage. When they were married, they settled in McLean, Va., not far from the Pentagon.
While Ho'opi'i's actions on Sept. 11 seem extraordinary to people who don't know him, his friends and family are not surprised. "It's Isaac," said his friend Ramon Camarillo. "That's the way he is."
Despite the tributes that arrived in the mail, despite the honor of being invited to bear the Olympic torch on part of its journey, despite the people he meets whose attitudes toward him have changed, life continues much as it did before that morning when Ho'opi'i heard the emergency call on his radio and drove so fast he blew out the transmission of his patrol car.
Part of that life includes his daughter, Kukana, and coaching her Little League team, and regular sessions with the Aloha Boys, a group of Hawai'i transplants who have come together to make music, cook stew and ribs and rice, and talk about home.
From one of the members' basements, the sweet strains of "I Miss You, My Hawai'i," would float up the stairs through the harshest winter nights, with Ho'opi'i strumming guitar.
And as he looks back at the past year, Ho'opi'i doesn't consider his actions impressive. "I'm not a hero," he said. "There are people who gave their lives. They're heroes. This one child sent an envelope with 36 cents in it. It was all his money from his pig-bank. That's a hero."
Shaaroni Wong, a journalism student in her junior year at Boston University, interviewed Isaac Ho'opi'i for a class assignment. She is the daughter of Alvin and Trudy Wong of Honolulu.