Survivor stories: Victims of Maui wildfires tell of watching Lahaina burn down

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The day began windier than usual in Lahaina, a Hawaiian sunrise painting the sky enchanting colors, a powerful breeze carrying the salty scent of the North Pacific Ocean inland.

The fire that had started on the mountain early that morning had crept a little closer to their storied Maui neighborhood.

But it still looked so far off.

The winds were building, though, their erratic gusts heaving the fire’s smoke in great bursts toward their homes.

Off Front Street at the ocean, near the oldest historic house on Maui and the beloved banyan tree, La Phena Davis watched the blaze Tuesday from the home where she, her great-grandparents, grandparents and grandchildren all lived.

“Never in a million years did I think that fire would reach our home,” she would say later.

Dustin Kaleiopu and his grandfather also felt the wind at home not far away. He knew, after Hurricane Lane in 2018 sparked wildfires on the island, how wind and flames could threaten and destroy. That time, the fire department had knocked at their door to warn them the danger was getting close.

“But this time, it was nothing,” he remembered. “No warning at all.”

Soon, though, the fire sent its own message.

“The smoke started getting thicker and blacker,” Kaleiopu recalled. “The smoke was filling our house, and we had no choice.

“I told my grandpa we needed to go,” he said, to abandon their home to the worsening fumes and approaching flames.

The “thick, black smoke” also reached Davis, she said.

She grabbed her important papers, knowing she, too, had to get out – and leave to the fire’s whims a place that housed generations, plus decades of their cherished belongings and memories.

Four miles away in Kaanapali, Bryan Aguiran was at work. An emergency alert soon reached him by phone, urging Lahaina residents to flee: The smoke had given way to flames.

Their community of 12,000 was being eaten alive.

Aguiran, of course, already was effectively evacuated. But this son of the one-time capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom couldn’t abide his own safety.

“I started driving my truck to Lahaina, but they blocked the road, they didn’t let anyone in,” he said. “I ran out of gas, so I parked my truck at work and started walking.”

He walked an hour before reaching a hilltop on upper Lahainaluna Road.

That’s when he saw it.

Bryan Aguiran poses on a beach in Lahaina before the wildfire tore apart his community.

“It looked like doomsday Armageddon,” Aguiran recalled. “It looked like ‘The Simpsons’ episode when the dragons flew over the houses and blew fire.”

Explosions like bombs erupted. Breathing was tough.

“It looked,” he said, “like a war zone.”

The flames arrived at the Tortoise and Bird Refuge in Lahaina with little notice beyond the day’s uptick in wind, Teri Lawrence recalled.

“Around 3, 4 o’clock, we were starting to see flames everywhere,” the animal sanctuary keeper said. “We started taking water from the ocean and spraying it on the flowers and hedges.”

“We saw houses all over us burn,” she said. “We kept trying to put the fires out, but there was no way we could keep up. My staff guy was jumping fences with the hose freaking out, then we heard explosions from propane tanks, and we watched the next street over become engulfed in flames.”

Still, Lawrence thought they could save the animal sanctuary, she said.

Then, her neighbor’s roof caught on fire.

Lawrence grabbed important documents, a few photos of her parents, the ashes of her late brother and cats, and her late dog’s blanket. Even as she slashed through her emergency to-do list, though, “you don’t actually believe you’re not coming back,” she said.

“I really, honestly, thought we were coming back.”

Scared and hysterical, they gathered up all the animals – or so they thought – and sped away from the flames.

Not far away on the ocean, boat captain Christina Lovitt soon found herself on a skiff, also trying to help.

She and two other captains, including her wife, had watched around sunset as black smoke overtook the sky before the wildfire’s flames burned her boat – the one she’d put “every penny” into – right there on the water, she said.

The scene was “toxic,” Lovitt said. Boats in the harbor had burned up, and others were on the brink of explosion.

The trio had managed to get onto the small, flat-bottomed skiff and were ushering others to safety when a large wave flooded their motor, rendering it inoperable.

Stymied from anchoring by 70- to 80-mph gusts, they drifted and eventually were pulled onto a 120-foot boat, Lovitt recalled. That boat had a generator, a radio and drinking water on board, but the wind had blown out the windows. So, the women started boarding them up to keep the smoke at bay.

Then, the onboard radio crackled: The Coast Guard needed help finding wildfire survivors who’d had no choice but to jump into the ocean after getting boxed out by flames.

Another passing boat lent them gas, Lovitt said. The women got back to the skiff, refueled and headed out into the night.

Heavy smoke and the dark night meant the makeshift rescue crew could hardly see. But they managed to find a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old, plucking them from the water and handing them over to the Coast Guard, Lovitt said.

As dawn approached, the life Lovitt had loved kept burning all around her, she said.

“There were waves on fire.”

Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters drop water from buckets on the wildfire Wednesday.

Back in Lahaina, paramedics had texted Dr. Reza Danesh with the horror they’d witnessed.

“‘Hey docs, there’s bodies on the ground, a lot and they’re around,’” recounted the emergency medicine doctor.

Danesh headed in.

“I didn’t realize what I was walking into” when he got there Wednesday, said the founder of MODO Mobile Doctor. “It reminded me a little bit of Covid and the pandemic, how you’d see images from New York, it was a ghost town.”

“It was still fresh and hot,” Danesh told CNN, “like an atomic bomb had gone off.”

The doctor found people who hadn’t eaten or drank water for hours, he said. He and his staff treated people in serious shock, with respiratory problems, with eye injuries.

The survivors told him their stories, which he shared on Instagram: One man had used a rope to rappel three stories down from his apartment when he saw the flames. He’d felt how hot the walls were and knew not to open his door. The man said everyone else in his building died, according to the doctor.

A woman in her Front Street apartment got surrounded by flames along with her neighbors, Danesh recalled her telling him. She left her pet bird, jumped the sea wall with her neighbors and fled with them into the ocean. Some paddled out on rafts and surfboards, she later told Danesh in a video. She watched one of her neighbors die from smoke inhalation, she said.

A man walks Wednesday past wildfire wreckage in Lahaina.

When he entered Armageddon from the hilltop, Aguiran also had seen the bodies, perhaps among at least 55 people confirmed dead through Thursday in the fire, with the tally expected to rise.

Aguiran and other islanders had grabbed buckets of water to try to save homes yet untouched by the blaze, soaking the land around them to try to protect them from burning, said his cousin Ella Sable Tacderan.

But the fire was too much. Aguiran watched his parents’ house burn down, one of five family homes destroyed, Tacderan said, and among more than 270 structures declared impacted so far by the fire in Lahaina.

“He is scarred,” she said of Aguiran, who with 22 other relatives is taking refuge at Tacderan’s home in Wailuku Maui, taking stock of the terror, the trauma and the yet unknowable future.

Lawrence, her sanctuary staffers and their animals ended up at a 12-floor hotel parking garage in Kaanapali only to meet a horrifying realization: “We forgot two tortoises and seven birds we accidentally left behind,” she said.

“Everyone was like, ‘Yes, yes. I got them,’ but … we didn’t,” she said. “We actually left those animals to fry. It’s unbelievable. My heart is destroyed, knowing their fear, knowing I told them, ‘You’ll never have to worry when you’re with me, never.’

“And I left them,” she said. “I can’t fathom their fear.”

The survivors – human and animal – were stuck in the parking deck for 30 hours without food, water or sleep as the surviving creatures were dropped off at sanctuaries, Lawrence said.

Their caretaker’s nightmare isn’t over.

“I’m covered in soot, still wearing the clothes I had on from the day of the fire; that’s all I’ve got,” she said Thursday from a friend’s home in Huelo. “I lived there for 32 years, but it feels like I was never born. I’ve got nothing else.”

Lovitt’s skiff arrived some 7 miles north at Kaanapali Beach late afternoon the day after the fire ordeal began, she said.

“We looked like refugees or something,” Lovitt said. “It was like something out of a movie.”

Finally ashore, they helped another boat unload humanitarian aid supplies, she said. And though the power is out, Lovitt’s house still stands – and is sheltering those whose homes are just debris.

Kaleiopu and his grandpa also got out of Lahaina, as did his brother and their dad, who before spotting the other son in evacuation traffic had feared his whole family dead, he said.

Still, “the home is lost,” Kaleiopu said.

“Everything in Lahaina is completely gone,” he said, referencing aerial footage. It “was completely devastating to see when we woke up, seeing what our town had transformed into just overnight.

“Everyone that I know and love, everyone that I’m related to, that I communicate with, my colleagues, friends, family – we’re all homeless.”

Davis made it out alive, too, from her family’s generational home. She and her relatives now also are apart in temporary houses after “everything that we’ve owned, in all my 50 years of life, is completely burned to the ground,” she said.

Front Street, known for its art galleries, stores, restaurants and historical sites, has been “completely impacted and leveled,” Davis said. “There’s absolutely nothing left of our neighborhood.”

“It’s a loss of our entire community, our town that we’ve known it to be for generations,” she said.

“We’re shook to our core.”


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