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Lanterns cast adrift off Ala Moana in annual remembrance

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Lanterns afloat at the annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony tonight.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    People prepared to float their lanterns at the annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony with its theme, “Many Rivers, One Ocean — Interconnectedness” at Ala Moana Beach today.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Seven-year-old Mady Chapman wandered among thousands of floating lanterns during the annual Lantern Floating Hawaii Ceremony.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Her Holiness Shinso Ito, head of Shinnyo-en, rang the bell to signify the start of the lantern floating today.

The moving and visually stunning Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony remained hugely popular this year as tens of thousands of people descended on Ala Moana Beach Park today.

Organizers were predicting a record crowd of 50,000 for their 19th year, and they distributed more lantern floats than ever — more than 7,000.

The floating lanterns, each personalized in memory of deceased loved ones, were set afloat as the day’s light was fading, the darkening seas lit up in a gorgeous display.

By 3:45 p.m., nearly three hours before the start of the live-streamed and televised program, all of the lanterns were given away.

The throng began showing up early. The Bessey family of Aina Haina got up long before the rising sun and arrived at the park at about 4 a.m., staking out the closest shoreline spot they could find — nearly a half-mile away.

Kerri Bessey brought her mother, Linda Zumalt, visiting from Missouri, to honor her late father, Fred Zumalt, and grandfather, Bob Huke. Bessey’s daughter, Chloe, said she was there to honor her beloved pet, a black lab named Radar.

“I’m just so happy to be here and spend the day with my family,” Linda Zumalt said. “(Husband Fred) was the greatest guy ever, my best friend, best dad and poppa. He was loved by many, many, many people.”

Coradene Paia joined the ceremony for the first time today in honor of her parents, four brothers, a sister and a niece. She tried to personalize her float earlier in the day but broke down and set it aside. A few hours before the ceremony, she finally finished.

“My brother (Dorian Paia) was lost to cancer last year,” Paia said, her voice cracking. “It gets emotional.”

Dorothy Villafuerte and her boyfriend, Clark Cuadro, both Army veterans from Kapolei, arrived too late to get a float, but they decided to honor their memories in their own way.

Villafuerte, a former Army captain and nurse, said she was honoring a former ROTC buddy, Army 1st Lt. Robert Bennedsen, who died in Afghanistan while trying to save convoy comrades injured by an improvised explosive. He saved one soldier but stepped on another explosive as he returned to the road, dying instantly.

“I thought he would return a hero, but I didn’t think he would have to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Villafuerte said. “I always think about him on this day.”

Cuadro said he was honoring a buddy, Pvt. Jauce Pauley, who died next to him during his tour of Iraq.

“He took bullet wounds to his head,” remembered Cuadro, a former sergeant who is now disabled.

The annual ceremony aims to bring people together for “a personal and collective moment of remembrance, reflection and offering of gratitude for those who have gone before us,” according to the organizers.

The ceremony is presented each year by Shinnyo-en and its affiliated Hawaii nonprofit known as Na Lei Aloha Foundation. It is led annually by Shinso Ito, leader of the Shinnyo-en Buddhist denomination.

While there was no cost to participate, donations received prior to the event were used to support the ceremony, organizers said, while those collected today were to be given to the City and County of Honolulu for the care and maintenance of Ala Moana Beach Park.

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