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

Aug 11, 2023, 10:25 PM

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.

United States News

FILE - Leaders take their seats for a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council during the NATO summit in...

Associated Press

With words, deeds and arms deals, allies make the case for NATO in terms that would appeal to Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — European allies in NATO are stepping up their military spending, just as Donald Trump wanted. They’re pointing to common interests, such as concerns over China. They’re creating American jobs by buying U.S. weapons. In words, deeds and arms deals, leaders of the United States’ partners in NATO are making the case for […]

25 minutes ago

Associated Press

The UN condemns increasing gang violence and criminal activity in Haiti that is undermining peace

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning “in the strongest terms” the increasing gang violence and criminal activity in Haiti that is undermining peace, stability and security in the country and the region. Friday’s resolution expresses grave concern at illegal arms and ammunition flowing into Haiti and their link […]

6 hours ago

Actor Alec Baldwin reacts during his trial for involuntary manslaughter for the 2021 fatal shooting...

Associated Press

Inside the courtroom as case dismissed against Alec Baldwin in fatal shooting of cinematographer

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A nearly three-year legal saga for Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer ended Friday without a verdict but with tears of relief for the actor and a small coterie of family who had settled into a somber daily routine on wooden benches inside a windowless New Mexico […]

6 hours ago

FILE - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres listens to a speech during the opening of the High-L...

Associated Press

UN chief urges funds for Palestinians, saying Israel is forcing Gazans ‘to move like human pinballs’

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations chief appealed for funding Friday for the beleaguered U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East, accusing Israel of issuing evacuation orders that force Palestinians “to move like human pinballs across a landscape of destruction and death.” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a donor’s […]

8 hours ago

Meals on Wheels employees take advantage of an assembly line to prepare bags of food for clients, F...

Associated Press

Houston community groups strain to keep feeding and cooling a city battered by repeat storms

HOUSTON (AP) — The deafening hum of a generator was a welcome noise Thursday evening at a Houston independent living center where several dozen seniors had lost power in the wake of Hurricane Beryl. Joe and Terri Hackl, who had pulled up with the backup electricity source after delivering hundreds of meals all day, estimate […]

9 hours ago

Twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner pose for a photograph in front of their business, Fee-Fo-Lay Café, ...

Associated Press

Historically Black Cancer Alley town splits over a planned grain terminal in Louisiana

WALLACE, La. (AP) — Sisters Jo and Dr. Joy Banner live just miles from where their ancestors were enslaved more than 200 years ago in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. Their tidy Creole cottage cafe in the small, river-front town of Wallace lies yards away from property their great-grandparents bought more than a century […]

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

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