They were alone in a fight to survive. Maui residents had moments to make life-or-death choices

Aug 14, 2023, 11:41 AM

The smoke was starting to blot out the sun. Winds were howling, and heat bore down as flames licked the trees on the horizon. The power had been out all day, so Mike Cicchino thought he’d drive to the hardware store for a generator. He turned off his street, and in an instant, his Lahaina neighborhood seemed to spiral into a war zone.

“When I turned that corner, I see pandemonium,” he said. “I see people running and grabbing their babies and screaming and jumping in their cars.”

It was around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when Cicchino and his neighbors began a desperate fight for their lives. They had just moments to make decisions that would determine whether they lived or died in a race against the flames — a harrowing, narrow window of time in one of the most horrifying and lethal natural disasters the country has seen in years.

There were no sirens, no one with bullhorns, no one to tell anyone what to do: They were on their own, with their families and neighbors, to choose whether to stay or to run, and where to run to — through smoke so thick it blinded them, flames closing in from every direction, cars exploding, toppled power lines and uprooted trees, fire whipping through the wind and raining down.

Authorities confirmed that at least 96 people died — already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years — and they expect that number to rise.

Just 10 minutes before Cicchino made that turn away from his street, Maui fire officials had issued an ominous warning. The Lahaina brush fire had sparked that morning, but authorities reported it was contained. Now, officials said, erratic wind, challenging terrain and flying embers made it hard to predict the fire’s path and speed. It could be a mile away, Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said, “but in a minute or two, it can be at your house.”

Cicchino did a U-turn, ran into his house and told his wife they needed to leave: “We need to go! We need to get out of here now!”

They ran to the car with five dogs and called police, and a dispatcher said to follow the traffic. Access to the main highway — the only road leading in and out of Lahaina — was cut off by barricades set up by authorities. The roadblocks forced Cicchino and the line of cars onto Front Street.

A few blocks away, Kehau Kaauwai said the wind was so intense it tore the roof from her neighbor’s home. It felt like tornado after tornado was slicing down her street.

“It roared,” she said. “It sounded like an airplane landing on our street.”

Within moments, she said, the smoke that had been blocks away suddenly engulfed them. It darkened from gray to black, day seemed to turn to night.

Kaauwai couldn’t even see buildings anymore. Something was exploding; it sounded like fireworks. She ran inside. She couldn’t think — she just grabbed her dog and some clothes, never imagining she would not see her house or anything in it ever again.

Around 4 p.m., she got into her car. Traffic crawled, people were dragging uprooted trees out of the road with their bare hands. Debris whipped in the wind and banged on the car. Danger seemed to come from every direction.

Kaauwai would have driven to Front Street, but a stranger walking by told her to go the other way. She wishes now she could thank him, because he might have saved her life.

On gridlocked Front Street, people were panicking, crying, screaming, honking.

Bill Wyland grabbed his computer, passport and Social Security card and stuffed them into a backpack. He got on his Harley Davidson and drove on the sidewalk.

“I could feel the heat burning in my back. I could pretty much feel the hair is burning off the back of my neck,” said Wyland, who owns an art gallery on the street.

At one point, he passed a man on a bicycle madly pedaling for his life. Some were abandoning cars and fleeing on foot. The smoke was so thick, so toxic, some said they vomited.

“It’s something you’d seen a in a ‘Twilight Zone’ horror movie or something,” Wyland said.

The street was so jammed, he thinks if he’d taken his car instead, he would have died or been forced into the ocean. The people sitting in their cars saw black smoke ahead.

“We’re all driving into a death trap,” Mike Cicchino thought. He told his wife: “We need to jump out of this car, abandon the car, and we need to run for our lives.”

They got the dogs out. But it was impossible to know which way to run.

“Behind us, straight ahead, beside us, everywhere was on fire,” Cicchino said. It had been less than 15 minutes since he left his house, and he thought it was the end. He called his mother, his brother, his daughter to tell them he loved them.

The black smoke was so thick they could see only the white dogs, not the three dark ones, and they lost them.

Propane tanks from a catering van exploded.

“It was like a war,” Cicchino said. They could tell how close the fire was coming based how far away the cars sounded when they erupted.

“The cars sounded like bombs going off,” Donnie Roxx said. “It was dark, it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and it looked like midnight.”

A seawall separates the town from the ocean, and Roxx realized he and his neighbors were confronting a horrific decision: stay on burning land or go to the water.

“Do you want to get burned or take your chances and drown?” he asked himself. He jumped over the wall.

So did dozens of others, including Mike Cicchino and his wife.

Others came to realize they needed to flee — but not because officials told them. Some heard from friends and neighbors, others just had a feeling.

“There was no warning. There was absolutely none,” said Lynn Robinson. “Nobody came around. We didn’t see a fire truck or anybody.”

She left her apartment near Front Street around 4:30. About a mile away, Lana Vierra’s boyfriend stopped by her home and said he’d seen the fire raging toward them.

“He told me straight, ‘People are going to die in this town; you gotta get out,’” she recalled. So she did.

Anne Landon was chatting with others in her senior apartment complex. She said she felt a sudden blast of hot air that must have been more than 100 degrees. She ran to her unit and grabbed her purse and her 15-pound dog, La Vida.

“It’s time to get out! Let’s get out!” she shouted to neighbors as she rushed to her car.

She’d already packed a rolling duffle bag in her car, just in case. She didn’t know where to go. She stopped and asked an officer, who didn’t know what to tell her, except to wish to her luck.

Debris was flying through the air. She ran into people she barely knew but recognized. They told her to come with them to their home. They got stuck in a dead stop in the traffic, so they abandoned the car. She put the dog on top of her rolling suitcase and dragged it down Front Street, to the beach.

Downtown’s historic wooden buildings were burning. The splintering lumber broke apart and flew through the wind, still flaming.

“The sky was black, and the wind was blowing, and the embers were going over us. We didn’t know if we’d have to jump in the water,” she said. “I was terrified, absolutely horrified — so, so scared.”

But a path through the smoke cleared for just a moment, and police came shouting for them to go north. They ran.

Many others remained trapped on the beach.

Mike Cicchino and his wife took off their shirts, dunked them in water and tried to cover their faces. Cicchino ran up and down the seawall, shouting his lost dogs’ names. He saw dead bodies slumped next to the wall. “Help me,” people screamed. Elderly and disabled people couldn’t make it over the wall on their own. Some were badly burned, and Cicchino lifted as many as he could. He ran until he vomited from the smoke, his eyes nearly swollen shut.

For the next five or six hours, they moved back and forth between sea and shore. They crouched behind the wall, trying to get as low as they could. When flames fell from the sky, they dunked themselves into the water. Their surviving dogs’ fur was singed.

It was so surreal, Cicchino thought he must be dreaming.

“My mind kept going back to: This has got to be just a nightmare. This cannot be real. This cannot actually be happening,” he said. “But then you realize you’re burning. I’m feeling pain, and I don’t feel pain in nightmares.”

The U.S. Coast Guard’s first notification about the fires was when the search and rescue command center in Honolulu received reports of people in the water near Lahaina at 5:45 p.m., said Capt. Aja Kirksy, commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu.

The boats were hard to see because of the smoke, but Cicchino and others used cellphones to flash lights at the vessels, guiding them in to rescue some, mostly children. Fire trucks eventually came and drove them out, through the flames.

Those who survived are haunted by what they endured.

Cicchino jolts awake at night from dreams of dead people, dead dogs. Two of his dogs remain missing. He agonizes over the decisions he made: Could he have saved more people? Could he have saved the dogs?

Anne Landon was practically catatonic. She imagines her neighbors who didn’t make it out and wonders if she might have been able to help them. She was covered in ash but couldn’t bring herself to shower.

Her dog wouldn’t eat for two days.


Associated Press reporters Claire Rush, Audrey McAvoy, Andrew Selsky, Haven Daley and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed.

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They were alone in a fight to survive. Maui residents had moments to make life-or-death choices