Searching for the missing on Maui, some wait in agony to make contact. And then the phone rings.

Aug 11, 2023, 10:25 PM

FILE - Thomas Leonard lies on an air mattress at an evacuation center at the War Memorial Gymnasium...

FILE - Thomas Leonard lies on an air mattress at an evacuation center at the War Memorial Gymnasium after his Lahaina apartment burned down, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Wailuku, Hawaii. Sherrie Esquivel, of Dunn, N.C., spent frantic days trying to find her father, Leonard, after fires devastated Lahaina this week. Neighbors told her early Friday, Aug. 11, he was safe, and she only found out ordeals of how he survived by reading an Associated Press article. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — Leshia Wright heard the crackle of the fast-moving inferno closing in on her home in Lahaina and decided it was time to evacuate.

The 66-year-old grabbed her medication for a pulmonary disease and her passport and fled the subdivision in the historic Hawaii oceanside community just minutes before flames engulfed the neighborhood. Hours later, she called family members and told them she slept in her car.

Then her phone went dead.

The next 40 hours were agony for her daughter in New York and sister in Arizona. But early Friday morning, Wright called back and told them she was OK.

“I’m obviously relieved beyond words that my mother is alive,” said Alexandra Wright, who added that her mother finally was able to charge her phone after reaching a friend’s undamaged house on a quarter-tank of gas.

The firestorm that killed dozens of people and leveled this historic town launched hundreds of people on a desperate search for their loved ones — many from thousands of miles away — and some are still searching. But amid the tragedy, glimmers of joy and relief broke through for the lucky ones as their mothers, brothers and fathers made it to safety and finally got in touch again.

Kathleen Llewellyn also worked the phones from thousands of miles away in Bardstown, Kentucky, to find her 71-year-old brother, Jim Caslin, who had lived in Lahaina for 45 years. Her many calls went straight to voicemail.

“He’s homeless; he lives in a van; he’s got leukemia; he’s got mobility issues and asthma and pulmonary issues,” she said.

Waiting and calling and waiting more, Llewellyn grew uneasy. Anxiety took hold and then turned to resignation as Llewellyn, a semi-retired attorney, tried to distract herself with work and weeding her garden.

She recalled thinking, “If this is his end, this is his end. I hope not. But there’s nothing I could do about it.”

Then her phone rang.

“I’m fine,” Caslin said. “I’m fine.”

Caslin told his sister he spent two days escaping the inferno with a friend in a journey that included bumper-to-bumper traffic, road closures, downed trees and power lines and a punctured tire. The pair nervously watched the gas needle drop before a gas station appeared and they pulled into the long line.

“I am a pretty controlled person, but I did have a good cry,” Llewellyn said.

Sherrie Esquivel was frantic to find her father, a retired mail carrier in Lahaina, but there was little she could do from her home in Dunn, North Carolina.

She put her 74-year-old father’s name on a missing person’s list with her phone number and waited.

“As the days were going on, I’m like, ‘There’s no way that he survived because … how have we not heard from him?’” she said. “I felt so helpless.”

Early Friday morning, she got a call from her father’s neighbor, who had tracked Thom Leonard down. He was safe at a shelter, but lost everything in the fire, the friend told her.

It wasn’t until Esquivel read an Associated Press article that she learned exactly how her father survived the fire. He was interviewed Thursday at a shelter on Maui.

Leonard tried but couldn’t leave Lahaina in his Jeep, so he scrambled to the ocean and hid behind the seawall for hours, dodging hot ash and cinders blowing everywhere.

“When I heard that, I thought of him when he was in Vietnam, and I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, his PTSD must have kicked in and his survival instincts,’” she said.

Firefighters eventually escorted Leonard and others out of the burning city.

Esquivel assumes it’s the same seawall across the street from his home where they took family photos at sunset in January.

She hoped to speak to her father, whom she described as a “hippie” who refuses to buy a cellphone.

When they talk, the first words out of her mouth will be: “I love you, but I’m angry that you didn’t get a cellphone,’” Esquivel said.

Interviewed Friday at the same shelter, Leonard also began to tear up when he heard what his daughter wanted to tell him. “I’m quivering,” he said, adding he loves her too.

He said he had a flip phone, but didn’t know how to use it.


Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska, and Komenda from Tacoma, Washington.

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Searching for the missing on Maui, some wait in agony to make contact. And then the phone rings.