HONOLULU (KHON2) — Months after the Lahaina fires, first responders are still shaken by a tragedy they know was out of their control, and they’re saddled with grief for those they couldn’t save.
From the front lines come stories of heroism and regret, ingenuity against and defeat by the worst Mother Nature could throw at one town, and lessons learned for preparing for a more fire-prone era.
It was well before dawn when 911 Dispatcher Melia Johnson got the call to come ASAP when Upcountry was on fire.
“We had 500, by then 500 calls from midnight to five in the morning,” said Johnson.
Turns out that was a warmup.
Audio of 911 calls during the fire were made public back in October:
Caller: “Near the intermediate I saw the electric went bounce, it just went start.”
Dispatch: “Okay, can you see what’s on fire?
Caller: “Oh, it’s the ground.“
Dispatch: “Okay, is it the brush?“
Caller: “It’s happening right now, yes yes it’s spreading.“
Dispatch: “Okay we’re coming we’re coming.”
A small center at the Maui Police Department handles it all — fire, police, and emergency medical services.
Just nine dispatchers — a full house for the Maui unit — went on to handle thousands of calls on Aug. 8 and into the night. The late afternoon flareup that became the raging Lahaina inferno changed everything.
On the receiving end of dispatcher’s assignments — men and women on the front lines, and blurring the lines between police, firefighting, and rescue. Countless calls were made to check on kupuna.
“There’s like no reason to believe that anyone’s in the house. But we just, we couldn’t leave there without making sure,” said MPD Officer Teanu Rickard. “So then I kick the door. Door flew open. And then we took them out. Yeah, took him out down to safety.”
All this while the Lahaina born-and-raised officer’s own home burned the ground.
“We just bought our house. I mean, we lost the house. We lost everything,” said Rickard. “Every officer that was on duty that day did more than — more than 100% of what of what they could do.”
As fires, downed poles and impassable webs of wires blocked roads, first responders helped break through gates and fences to create more escape routes.
“If we pop that gate off, I mean, I think there’s a way down, and they can get on to the Lahainaluna Road. And I think we can get people to safety,” said MPD Officer Kenneth Carroll. “It’s just a lot safer route relative to where they are coming from because of the direction of the winds and the fire.”
That kind of improvising happened for hundreds if not thousands more people through the afternoon and into the night.
“We knew at a certain point that we were losing, we knew that it was out of our control, that we could only do the best we could,” said Johnson.
“If you’re safe please stay there. If you are not safe you got to find some way to get to the ocean,” said a dispatcher in an audio recording from the night of the fire.
They reflect on lessons learned and say now’s the time for all communities to take stock.
“Planning is a big part of it we should have these hard talks and hard conversations about everything regarding exit routes, as far as resources it’s not pointing the finger at who did how we can fix something versus just identifying problems,” said Carroll.
Despite all those saved by police, firefighters, EMS, dispatchers, good samaritans, themselves and each other, first responders KHON2 News talked to can’t shake a certain feeling.
“And I think that’s what bothers us today, you know, three months after the fact that, yeah, there could have been things, maybe we could have changed,” Johnson continued. “But all — we did exactly what we could have done at that moment. And so if you, you know, you listen to the room, you could hear dispatcher saying just ‘Go. Leave. Save yourself. Don’t wait.'”
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I wish I could have saved all I’m not gonna lie. And I had a moment that it hit me as far as we, I should have did better. And not putting any blame on anybody,” said Carroll. “But I should saved a lot more lives and a little case of survivor’s guilt, if you will, but and it’s just that I love the community. I love the people.”