‘Indescribable’: Stories of loss emerge from devastating Hawaii fires

Death toll on Maui island approaches 100, with US President Joe Biden saying he will visit Hawaii ‘as soon as’ possible.

Burned-out homes in Lahaina
Two people examine a burned house on August 13 after fires destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii [Sandy Hooper/USA Today Network via Reuters]

The search for missing people continues in Hawaii one week after devastating blazes erupted on the island of Maui, causing widespread devastation.

Maui County has confirmed 99 people perished in the flames, making the wildfires the deadliest in more than a century of United States history.

On Tuesday, the Hawaii national guard activated hundreds of troops to help with the disaster response. Hundreds of people remain missing as firefighters continue to battle the fires.

Officials have warned, though, that the death toll could rise sharply as search teams working with cadaver dogs scan the burned-out areas.

The White House said on Tuesday that it mobilised a “robust whole-of-government response effort to support immediate and long-term rescue and recovery efforts in Maui”.

Later in the day, President Joe Biden announced he and his wife Jill Biden will visit Hawaii as soon as they can.

“I want to go and make sure we’ve got everything we need. I want to be sure we don’t disrupt the recovery efforts,” he said.

The multiple fires, fuelled by strong winds and dry conditions, broke out on Tuesday last week and have been mostly contained. It remains unclear what exactly sparked them.

Thousands of survivors have been displaced by the blazes, the worst of which destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina. Here are some of the victims’ stories.


As television footage showed fire engulfing Lahaina, all Donna Hartley could think of was her sister. But Carole Hartley was not picking up her phone.

“I told my husband that if this is burned like this, then Carole’s house is gone,” the 62-year-old Alabama resident told The Associated Press news agency.

Two days later, her sister’s partner called. The news was not good. He told her he had been in the front yard loading his car, and Carole had been in the back yard, when the wind fanned the flames. The car exploded.

Carole’s partner assembled a team of friends for a search party. By Saturday night, Donna Hartley heard the news that he had found her sister’s remains, including her watch. She is still waiting for official DNA verification. Her sister had lived in Lahaina for 36 years.

“Her birthday was August 28 and she was going to be 61 years old,” Donna Hartley said. “She kept telling me as of late: one more year, sister and I’m retiring.”

‘Our grief is indescribable’

A family of four — Faaso and Malui Fonua Tone, Salote Takafua and her son Tony Takafua — died while attempting to flee from the flames. Their remains were found on Thursday in a burned car near their home.

“The magnitude of our grief is indescribable,” read a statement from family members.

Lylas Kanemoto, who knew the Tone family, confirmed the devastating news on Sunday.

“At least we have closure for them, but the loss and heartbreak is unbearable for many,” Kanemoto told the Associated Press by text message. “We, as a community, [have] to just embrace each other and support our families, friends and our community to the best of our abilities.”

Kanemoto is still waiting on news about her cousin, Glen Yoshino, who is missing.

“I’m afraid he is gone because we have not heard from him, and he would’ve found a way to contact family,” Kanemoto said. “We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

‘A really good man’

Retired fire captain Geoff Bogar and his friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially stayed behind to help others in Lahaina and save Bogar’s house. But as the flames moved closer and closer last Tuesday afternoon, they knew they had to flee.

Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s vehicle would not start, he broke through a window to get out and crawled on the ground until a police patrol found him. He was then taken to a hospital.

Trejos was not able to escape.

When Bogar returned the next day, he found the bones of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, lying on top of the remains of the Bogars’ beloved three-year-old golden retriever Sam, whom he had tried to protect.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had lived for years with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, helping her with her seizures when her husband could not.

“God took a really good man,” Weber-Bogar said.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press