Fear and confusion mark key moments of Lahaina residents’ 911 calls during deadly wildfire

Oct 13, 2023, 12:28 AM

FILE - A man walks through wildfire wreckage in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 11, 2023. Federal authorities...

FILE - A man walks through wildfire wreckage in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 11, 2023. Federal authorities have started removing hazardous materials from the Maui wildfires and laying the groundwork to dispose of burnt cars, buildings and other debris. The hazardous materials, including oil, solvent and batteries, are being shipped to the West Coast while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works with local officials to develop a plan to dispose of an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 tons of debris on the island. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Maui County officials released two hours of audio of 911 calls to The Associated Press that were recorded as frantic residents tried to escape the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. The inferno that engulfed Lahaina killed at least 98 people and leveled more than 2,000 buildings, most of them homes.

Here are chronological summaries of some of the more than 200 calls recorded with 911 dispatchers between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 obtained by the AP.


3:31 p.m.

A woman called to ask if she had to evacuate. When she said she was on Front Street and Baker Street, an area in the historic heart of the town that would ultimately be razed by the flames, she was told she didn’t have to leave.

“That’s not close to it yet,” an audibly stressed dispatcher said before adding they were trying to answer all the calls coming in.


4:41 p.m.

A man called 911 saying he was seeking refuge in a big rig truck that he came across near the Pioneer Mill Smokestack just off Lahainaluna Road. He said he initially tried to escape by bike but ditched it when the fire became too intense. Vehicles were blowing up around him, he said.

The dispatcher asked if he could drive the rig to get away from the fire. When he said he didn’t know how to drive an 18-wheeler, she asked him why he was in it.

“Ma’am, I need help, OK!” he said. “I’m getting burned up here.”

The man said he was inhaling the pitch black smoke surrounding the truck. Near the end of the call, the panic in his voice rose notably.

“I’m running for it. Jesus Christ,” he said. “Oh my God. I don’t know what to do. … I gotta get outta here. I gotta do something.”

The man called back about 15 minutes later to say he had made it out of the truck and was OK.


4:42 p.m.

A caller who sounded like a little girl called from near Aki Street.

“The fire’s all over already. It’s all over Lahainaluna,” she said in a voice wrought with panic. Shrieks were heard in the background as other people frantically debated what to do. At one point, it seemed they were saying, “dead end.”

“You guys need to leave. If you can’t drive away, get out of the car and run,” the dispatcher said. “Do not stay in your car and wait. Get out of there. You guys need to worry about your bodies, not your car.”


4:44 p.m.

A caller could barely get her words out between sobs. She said she last saw her mom and her baby on Kahena Street, near Lahainaluna Road.

“Do you think they’re there still,” the dispatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, overcome by tears. “My mom just took her to go up the road because we thought it was safer.”

The dispatcher tried to gently reassure her that officers were in the area. But when she asked how old her mom was, the call dropped.


4:49 p.m.

A man called to say he and his wife were trapped because she couldn’t get down the four flights of stairs in their apartment building.

The dispatcher said the best they could do was alert police, and then asked if the man had any neighbors who could help.

“They’re a bunch of girls, they’re not very strong. I don’t think they could help my wife down the steps,” he said.

“Let me try my best to get a hold of somebody,” the dispatcher said, “and try to send them your way.”


4:52 p.m.

A woman called from Front Street and Baker Street to say she was trapped in traffic. Saying the fire was half a block away from her car, she asked where she could drive to safety because the smoke was too thick to get out and walk.

When the dispatcher told her to go north to the Lahaina Civic Center, she said they were stuck and didn’t have any way to make it there.

“Neither does anybody else at that point, right?” the dispatcher said. “We’ve got all these huge fires going on. If everybody just tries to stay calm and try to do things in an orderly fashion, that’s the best we can do at this point.”

The caller then asked if they should turn around and head south on Front Street instead.

“No. Just keep going the way you’re going,” the dispatcher said, “don’t just turn around and make it worse, you know what I mean? So if you gotta go slowly, just keep plugging away.”


4:55 p.m.

Another caller from that intersection said she and many others were terrified because they were stuck in their cars.

“We are caught in massive traffic and we’re covered in ashes and embers and there’s a lot of people honking and trying to get out of the road,” she said. “The ashes are engulfing our car and the flames are going on our car.”

When she asked if there was anything the emergency services could do, such as clear the road for the trapped cars, the dispatcher said the fire department and other officers were on their way to the area.

“I’m sorry. We’re trying to get somebody out there,” the dispatcher said.


4:56 p.m.

A dispatcher briefly chastised one man when he called to report his elderly parents were stuck in their burning home.

“Why did they not call us direct? They should have called us direct,” the dispatcher said, saying that would make it easier to find their location. She also said the man should have told them to leave the house sooner.

“Yes, we’ve been trying to tell them. My dad was trying to fight the fire,” the man said. “The last words he said is, ‘I love you. We’re not going to make it.’”

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Fear and confusion mark key moments of Lahaina residents’ 911 calls during deadly wildfire