As flames swallowed Maui, survivors made harrowing escapes
Aug 11, 2023, 11:53 AM | Updated: 6:38 pm
An immigrant cook building a new life. A widow preparing to say goodbye. A couple taking their wedding vows.
All were caught in the crossfire, forced to flee as flames swallowed parts of Maui, that drop in the Pacific where roads wind past waterfalls, turtles glide through gem-blue waters and a volcano towers overhead.
These are the stories of the survivors:
Mike Cicchino cowered in the back of a van with his wife. Flames and choking black smoke surrounded them. People ran and screamed. The sound of explosions thundered.
“We’ve got to prepare to die,” he thought.
He called his mother and told her how much he loved her, then his brother, then the toughest of all, his 4-year-old daughter who was safe with her mother. Every labored breath felt like his last.
“I love you,” he told his daughter. “Be good. You know I’m always going to be there for you.”
Only about 15 minutes had passed since Cicchino and his wife, Andreza, had left their home in their truck and driven through a “straight out of a movie” disaster scene. After police roadblocks forced them onto Front Street, they ditched their truck, running one way, then another, finding walls of flames in their path.
They took shelter in the van, thinking it might provide some protection from the smoke. But, seeing the flames fan closer, they sprinted for the sea wall and jumped over to the sharp rocks below.
They dunked their shirts in water, wrapped them around their noses, and crouched low against the wall, trying to escape the smoke. As wood buildings ignited, the embers singed their skin.
With the blaze moving closer and flames licking the top of the wall, they jumped into the ocean.
For the next five or six hours they oscillated between sea and craggy shore. Cicchino, who is 37 and has lived on Maui since he was a child, darted back and forth helping others get over the wall.
At least one of the people he approached was dead.
As the hours passed and he carried more and more people, his rib cage ached and his eyes were nearly swollen shut. At one point, he fell to his knees and vomited.
A Coast Guard boat eventually neared shore and took a couple of children aboard just as firefighters were arriving on land. He and his wife were led by firefighters to a pickup, driving through flames to escape.
They made their way to a triage center, then a shelter. Until the end, he thought he would die.
His phone, saved by a waterproof bag, suddenly got a signal. Now he could spread word he was alive.
By the time Marlon Vasquez heard the alarms, there was only time to run.
The 31-year-old cook shouted for his brother and opened the door of their Lahaina rental home to thick smoke and intense heat.
“The fire was almost on top of us,” he said.
The two sprinted. And, running on for what felt like an eternity, a hellscape unfurled. Day turned to night as smoke blotted out the sun, occasionally bared as a red orb. Roads clogged with cars. People dove into the Pacific. At one point, the flames chased him as strong winds blew them down a mountainside. The air was so black he vomited.
“We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day because the fire didn’t stop,” Vasquez said.
The brothers kept running down the coast until they came upon a motorist who drove them to a shelter where they joined about 200 others in a gymnasium.
The restaurant Vasquez worked at was destroyed. He only managed to grab his passport, wallet, a few bottles of water and a can of sardines.
He arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala at the start of 2022. Now, his car and everything he worked for has been torched.
He isn’t sure if the roommates he and his brother lived with made it out. He wonders about the people they passed who were unable to run as they did. He doesn’t know where they will go next. They will look for work in whatever state or country that has jobs for them.
There seemed to be only one certainty for Vasquez.
“We’ll keep struggling,” he said.
Tracey Graham was due to spend her last week on Maui snorkeling with sea turtles, dining with friends, and reminiscing about the eight years she called the “beautiful, wonderful piece of paradise” home.
Instead, she fled the fires, is sleeping in a shelter and wondering what became of the places she loved.
“It’s scary,” says 61-year-old Graham. “It’s devastating — that’s the only word I keep coming back to.”
Graham, who was staying with a friend north of Lahaina, was about to take an afternoon nap Tuesday when she noticed the smell. She went outside, saw flames and smoke, and heard popping noises.
She fled with friends, grabbing her passport, her journal and a framed photo with a button that played a recording of her husband, Cole Wright, telling her how much he loved her.
He died of prostate cancer four months ago.
Authorities kept directing her and her friends to different points. Once she made it to the shelter set up at the Maui War Memorial, rumors of the devastation raged, with many unsure whether their homes and loved ones were safe. She hasn’t been able to reach one of her close friends.
“It’s disorienting,” she says. “You just don’t know what’s what.”
Graham is departing Saturday to start a new life in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Her plan was already made after her husband’s death, but the tragedy of the wildfires cemented the need to leave.
“It’s just been too sad,” she says.
It wasn’t exactly how Cindy and Bob Curler envisioned their wedding night.
Unable to get back to their Lahaina hotel Tuesday as wildfires swallowed the town, their driver was forced to take them to the garage where he parks his limousine. The newlyweds shared a couch for the night, her in her strapless lace gown, him in his crisp blue suit.
Just hours earlier, the Pittsburgh couple had strolled Lahaina’s streets, passing the 150-year-old banyan tree and popping in quaint shops.
There were hiccups as they prepared for their ceremony, but nothing that alarmed them. The power had been knocked out at Lahaina Shores Beach Resort, where they were staying, and they could see flames in the mountains. Winds were “hellacious,” 46-year-old Bob said, but flames did not appear close.
The two heard no warnings, so they pressed forward with their elopement plans, driving south to a beach just past Wailea, where they exchanged vows under perfect blue skies. There was still no word of disaster, so they celebrated with a dinner at a nearby resort.
“We didn’t know that the town was burning,” Bob said.
Their driver tried to get them back to Lahaina, but roads were choked with traffic. Inching along, seeing fire spreading by the highway, they changed course, heading for the garage at 2 a.m.
It wasn’t until morning that they saw photos of Lahaina’s destruction and realized they were blessed to have escaped. Their hotel appears to have been spared the worst, but they haven’t been able to return. They know it’s nothing compared to the losses others are suffering.
“Yes it was our wedding day and night but that’s only one night for us,” Cindy said. “These people are impacted for the rest of their lives”
Associated Press writers Andrew Selsky in Bend, Oregon, and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.