Dara Rei Onishi ’97, a graduate of Morse College, died last month in a tragic and bizarre natural accident.
Onishi, 26, lay sleeping in her family home in the Nuuanu Valley of Oahu, Hawaii, in the early hours of Aug. 10 when a six-ton boulder wrenched loose from the hillside behind the Onishi property and crashed into her second-story bedroom, killing her instantly. Her younger brother, Blaine, and her parents were uninjured.
The accident cut short a relationship that began when fellow Morsels Onishi and Shadid “Shy” Nimjee ’98 met on freshman year move-in day.
“I was going to ask her to marry me in June,” Nimjee said.
He planned to propose at her fifth year class reunion, on the same steps of Lawrance Hall where the couple first met.
“We were very excited about taking the next step, spending the rest of our lives together,” Nimjee said.
Nimjee said he remembers coming down the steps of Lawrance Hall and nodding to Onishi’s father. Then he saw Dara Onishi and was simply stunned.
“I ended up stumbling down a few stairs after that,” Nimjee said.
The two bumped into each other a few times during the semester, but did not start dating until the Winter Ball. A few guys had asked Onishi, but she had turned them all down.
“She came upstairs and asked me if I was going,” Nimjee said. “I guess she was hoping I’d ask her … but she asked me.”
Nimjee and Onishi spent the next two and a half years together in New Haven.
“Yale provided us with a beautiful environment to have a classic college romance,” Nimjee said. “We managed to find in one another and in ourselves a capacity for love that transcended both time and place.”
After Onishi graduated early with a degree in East Asian studies, the couple maintained a long-distance relationship for the next five years. They would have been much closer together this fall, when Onishi was set to study at Columbia Teaching College. She picked Columbia to be near to Nimjee, a Duke University medical student.
Onishi spent two years in Akita, Japan, teaching English and ultimately hoped to be an English teacher. Then she returned to Hawaii and, during her six-month deferment from Columbia — she had applied to go in January, but changed her mind — worked as an administrative assistant for the managing director of the Municipality of Honolulu.
Wherever she worked, she brought with her a cheerful demeanor and smiling face.
“When Dara interacted with people, they just came out of those interactions smiling,” Nimjee said. “She had an amazing smile.”
Somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 people came to pay their last respects to the smiling girl, many who knew her and some who had learned of her premature death from the “torrid amount of press” covering the strange event.
Since the highly publicized accident, the city has been taking steps to improve the safety of residents living below hillsides, which are always susceptible to landslides following heavy rains. Insurance companies have even hired geologists to survey the area, and Nimjee said a second boulder was identified near the one that crashed into the Onishi home. Still, Nimjee said that he never really thought about the accident being anyone’s fault.
“I was caught up in the fact that I lost the love of my life,” Nimjee said, calling the accident an inexplicable anomaly. “You get to start wondering about chance.”
Whether the victim of natural process, chance or the hand of God, Dara will be remembered for a long time by her family, the love of her life, and the Yale community, particularly members of Morse College.
“She was an extraordinary girl,” said Marcia Chambers, the former associate master of Morse College. “We were just stunned to find out. … I was in tears.”
Though Morse is planning on creating some sort of memorial or tribute, nothing definite has been decided yet.
“We knew her simply as a fine person, a devout student of the college,” former Morse Master Stanton Wheeler said.