| 13 July 2024, Saturday |

911 calls from deadly Lahaina wildfire show residents’ terror and panic in a desperate bid to escape

Maui County authorities released audio recordings of 911 calls from a fatal August wildfire on Thursday. The audio paints a harrowing and disordered picture, depicting the wildfire’s rapid advance through the historic town of Lahaina. In these recordings, people can be heard seeking assistance while attempting to flee from burning homes and navigating through congested traffic, with flames dangerously close to their vehicles in some instances.
The 911 calls were released to The Associated Press in response to a public record request. They cover a two-hour period from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 8 as the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, whipped by powerful winds from a passing hurricane, bore down on the town.

At least 98 people were killed and more than 2,000 structures were destroyed, most of them homes, leveling a historic town that once served as the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and a port for whaling ships.

Hawaiian Electric, the state’s electric utility company, has acknowledged its power lines started a wildfire on Maui, but the company faulted county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene, only to have a second wildfire break out nearby.

The county and the families of some victims have sued Hawaiian Electric, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.

The pleas for help came one right after another, people calling because they were stuck in cars on Front Street, trapped by fallen trees blocking evacuation routes or worried about loved ones who were home alone. Again and again, overwhelmed dispatchers apologized to callers but said there was no one available to send to their location, assuring them emergency responders were working to extinguish the fires.

Roughly two-thirds of the known victims who died in the fire were 60 or older, according to a list from Maui County. The calls reflect the helplessness of the situation for those who needed help getting out quickly.

In one call at 3:31 p.m., a woman says her daughter already called about an 88-year-old man who was left behind in their house and she wants emergency personnel to know the sliding doors are unlocked.

“He would literally have to be carried out,” she tells the dispatcher. “I just had to leave him because I had the rest of my family in the car. So right now he’s in the room and the doors are unlocked, but the Bougainvillea Bush is on fire right now.”

A dispatcher says they will update the fire department.

In another clip, a woman living at a group senior residence called Hale Mahaolu Eono called to ask for help as the fire burned close to the home. She was one of four people left at the facility without any cars, she told the dispatcher, as the flames pushed closer.

“There’s a fire like, you know, close to us. Are we supposed to get evacuated?” she asked the dispatcher, panic clear in her voice.

“OK ma’am, if you feel unsafe, listen to yourself and evacuate,” she said. No emergency vehicles were available to help, the dispatcher said, because all available units were fighting the fire.

As cinders rained around her, she tried to flag down people driving past to get a ride out while staying on the line with the dispatcher.

One car stopped but wouldn’t wait while she tried to get her things. She eventually was able to flag down another passing woman. It wasn’t clear from the call what happened to the remaining people at the residence.

At least two people died at the senior home, authorities would later learn.

In another call to 911 just after 3:30 p.m., the caller asked whether it was safe to evacuate from Lahaina after seeing “fire in our backyard.” The dispatcher answered in the affirmative, saying “if you feel like that’s what you need to do, then yes.”

The audio clips also echo a refrain heard from many survivors: They were unable to escape, even by car, because of traffic and blocked roads.

One woman tells a dispatcher that she is on Front Street and sees a house on fire, but can’t advance.

“We’re 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,” the caller says. “If there’s anything you guys could do, because the ashes are engulfing our car and … the flames are going on our car,”

The dispatcher apologizes and says firefighters are trying to get there.

“It’s just really scary,” the dispatcher says. “I know, I know.”

High winds from a hurricane passing well south of the island wreaked havoc the night and early morning hours before the fire, knocking down power lines and damaging buildings around Lahaina. One downed power line sparked a fire in dry grass near a Lahaina subdivision around 6:30 a.m.

Firefighters declared it fully contained a few hours later, but the flames rekindled some time between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and soon overtook the town.

Around that time, many had lost cellphone service, leaving them without a way to call for help. Power was also out across West Maui, rendering emergency warnings on social media or television stations largely futile. The island’s emergency siren system — another way authorities can communicate urgency in a time of danger — was never activated.

For some, emergency dispatchers were their only contact with the world beyond the burning town. Later even that connection was lost.

Just after midnight on Aug. 9, Maui County announced on Facebook that the 911 system was down in West Maui. Instead, the county wrote, people should call the Lahaina Police Department directly, apparently meaning the Maui Police station in Lahaina.

But 911 was still working the previous afternoon, as people in Lahaina raced to escape the flames. Traffic jams blocked some routes out of town. Downed power lines, fire, trees and in some cases police and utility vehicles blocked others.

Many drivers became trapped on Front Street, surrounded on three sides by black smoke and a wall of flames. They had moments to choose whether to stay or jump into the wind-whipped ocean as cars exploded and burning debris fell around them.

More than two months after the fire, Lahaina remains a disaster zone, but officials continue to urge tourists to respectfully return to other parts of the island to help keep the economy afloat.