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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 21, 2008

Rescuer from 9/11 tunes up to play slack-key at inaugural ball

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Isaac Ho'opi'i, playing with the Aloha Boys at Don Ho's Island Grill restaurant in Honolulu, is a Wai'anae High School grad now living in Virginia and working as a policeman at the Pentagon.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Isaac Ho'opi'i was interviewed on NBC’s “Today” show on Oct. 8, 2001, about how he helped rescue 15 people — including Wayne Sinclair — from the Pentagon after terrorists crashed a plane into it.


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Isaac Jesse Waipulani Ho'opi'i could not even pick up his beloved Martin guitar after he carried eight people from the wreckage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and helped seven more to safety.

But on Jan. 20, there's an outside chance that Ho'opi'i could be playing a slack-key "Hail to the Chief" at what has now become the hottest ticket in Washington, D.C., the sold-out Hawai'i Inaugural Ball.

Sometimes, the thought of that "leaves me just speechless," Ho'opi'i said yesterday by telephone from his home in McLean, Va. "You just don't know what to say."

Ho'opi'i and two other Island expatriates — Irv Queja and Uncle Glen Hirabayashi — will perform as the Aloha Boys at the ball, which will be held after Barack Obama is sworn in as America's 44th president.

Organizers hope to get a commitment that Obama actually will stop by. If he does, Ho'opi'i knows that there's a possibility the Aloha Boys will be on stage when another son of Hawai'i enters the ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

It would be another incredible moment for a boy who played cornerback on the Wai'anae High School football team and later — as a 38-year-old Pentagon police officer — found himself and his K-9 partner running into the blackened, smoke-filled corridors of the Pentagon yelling for survivors of the suicide attack that had been Flight 77.

For his actions, Ho'opi'i was given the Office of the Secretary's Medal of Valor, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Department of Defense, and had a day named after him in Hawai'i both by former Gov. Ben Cayetano and by Gov. Linda Lingle.

He was featured in news reports around the world and became known as "the angel," or "the voice" who called for survivors to follow him out of the Pentagon's rubble.

What's less known is how Ho'opi'i dealt with the fallout.

Three of the 15 people he helped later died, and Ho'opi'i could often be found lost in his own deep thoughts.

He and Vito, his bomb-sniffing German shepherd partner, worked 36 hours straight after the attack and regularly pulled 12-hour shifts in the days, weeks and months that followed.

"He was more quiet," said Queja, who works on Capitol Hill as the safety coordinator in the Office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms. "He wasn't as jovial as he once was. It seemed to me he was carrying what he saw — and what he had to do — on his shoulders. Not all the people he saved lived. That's pretty profound when your job is trying to help people and not all make it."

There certainly was no time to make music.

"I was more focused on what was going on, the turmoil, wondering when the next incident might happen," Ho'opi'i said. "We were on high alert."


The Aloha Boys met 14 years ago, as mere parents at their children's Washington, D.C.-area hula halau, Halau O 'Aulani.

They discovered a mutual love of Hawaiian music and began playing at parties and keiki lu'au for expats living in the cold of Washington.

"They're all best friends," Ho'opi'i's wife, Gigi, said yesterday. "It comes across in their music."

And Gigi — who is also the Aloha Boys' manager — decided that music was just the thing to bring her husband back from his funk.

Seven months after Sept. 11, Gigi invited Queja, Hirabayashi and expatriate 'ukulele player Ramon Camarillo for dinner and a slack-key intervention, of sorts.

"He was working outrageous hours and she thought it was appropriate at that time," Queja said.

When Ho'opi'i arrived at home in McLean, "They said, 'We're waiting for you,'" Ho'opi'i remembered.

He picked up the Martin six-string cutaway guitar that Gigi had given him as a gift and the Aloha Boys quickly slipped into their usual opening number, "Doxology," which is known in Hawaiian as "'Ekolu Mea Nui."

The opening lyrics translate into English as:

Three important things in the world

Faith, hope

And love, love is the best

And everything is blessed

And everything is blessed.

The music did not stop when night fell, and continued well into the morning.

"The chemistry is so great because of the love we have for the Hawaiian music," Ho'opi'i said.

The cries he heard and the things he saw on Sept. 11 "are always going to be there," said Ho'opi'i, now 45. "But one of my release points is playing music. I coach high school sports, but the more relaxing thing I enjoy is playing music with my buddies."


The Aloha Boys have since returned to their regular schedule of around 30 gigs a year, which have included performances on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, at the National Geographic Society Headquarters and on the National Mall.

In May, organizers of the Hawai'i Inaugural Ball asked the Aloha Boys to give them referrals on Hawaiian musicians, and they were glad to oblige. Some of the entertainers agreed to play at the ball, including Raiatea Helm, Kohala, Eddie Kamae and the Auntie Genoa Ohana Ensemble.

Others couldn't make it, so the Aloha Boys agreed to fill in.

None of it had much significance months ago, when Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton just to become the Democratic nominee.

But on the day after the election, "the other guys called and said, 'Obama won. You know we're playing for that inaugural ball. I wonder if the president's going to be coming by?'" Ho'opi'i remembered. "The next thing you know, we get a call saying, 'We're all sold out and they're begging for tickets, paying $2,500.'"

So Ho'opi'i and the Aloha Boys will perform for a receptive, packed crowd Jan. 20 — and possibly for the next president of the United States, who happens to come from their island state.

It will be a long, memorable night for Ho'opi'i — but also a long day.

Well before the sun comes up and Obama is sworn in at noon, Sgt. Ho'opi'i and his new K-9 partner, Marko, already will be on duty at the Pentagon.

"I'll be on the job," Ho'opi'i said. "We've already been told to tighten up — for security purposes."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.