As Flames Rushed Toward Lahaina, These Friends Tried To Help 2 Seniors Escape

In the absence of formal evacuation efforts, friends and neighbors tried to save seniors from the fire. Some succeeded. Others could not.

Aaron Kamaunu, his wife Kathy and Etina Hingano smile for a portrait before the Kamaunus moved from the Lahaina Crossroads Apartments in the summer of 2022. (Courtesy of Aaron Kamaunu/2022)

From the second-floor lanai of a home on the south edge of Lahaina, Aaron Kamaunu stood and watched smoke billow toward his friends in the heart of town.

There were no sirens. No orders from police over loudspeakers. No evacuation alert buzzing on his cell phone. But Kamaunu, a retired Lahaina patrolman, knew something was terribly wrong.

The 61-year-old, who serves as a full-time caregiver to a 99-year-old man, knew he needed to move his wife and elderly client to safety. But he also worried about his friends and former neighbors less than a mile away at the Lahaina Crossroads Apartments, a 20-unit complex tucked behind historic Front Street.

Kamaunu first dialed Freeman Tam Lung, the friendly 80-year-old known as “Uncle Freeman,” living in apartment No. 3 on the ground floor. On the other end of the phone, the kupuna brushed off the fear of the fire and laughed.

“Uncle,” Kamaunu began to plead. Then the call dropped.

Next Kamaunu dialed Etina Hingano, a longtime friend who lived on the floor above Tam Lung.


Lahaina Crossroads was a 20-unit complex that housed mostly kupuna and working families who had banded together last year to prevent the building from being turned into vacation rentals. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Kamaunu and Hingano, 54, had known each other since childhood. As adults living in Lahaina and then in the same apartment building, they became close friends, working to care for fellow neighbors like Tam Lung and banding together to protect their little apartment complex from development.

Hingano didn’t need Kamaunu’s warning to know she had to help get Tam Lung to safety.

As the fire approached Front Street, Hingano scrambled down the building stairwell to reach her friend, who struggled to get around on a good day.

Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable during disasters — even when first responders are on hand. In the absence of any formal evacuation effort, neighbors were the best hope that many kupuna had for aid during the deadliest fire in Hawaii’s recorded history.

As the fire roared through town, Kamaunu and Hingano set out to save two seniors from the flames.

One of them would succeed. The other would not.

A Tight-Knit Community

As young children, both Kamaunu and Hingano grew up on the other side of the West Maui Mountains near Wailuku. Decades later, they both ended up in Lahaina.

After Kamaunu retired from the Maui Police Department, he took over as the caretaker of the Lahaina Crossroads Apartments and looked after seniors as a home health aid.

Hingano, meanwhile, went to work in the predawn hours for the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, sweeping Front Street and tending to the historic Baldwin House near the harbor. During the day, she served as a docent.

Lahaina Crossroads was a tight-knit community, where rents had remained relatively flat — an anomaly in a town where housing costs had soared out of many working families’ reach.

“We help each other,” Hingano said.

Kamaunu oversaw the care of the building. Hingano and her husband weed-whacked and trimmed trees. Other tenants watered the plants.

Everyone looked out for the kupuna, especially the oldest tenant in the building, Tam Lung. Hingano did his laundry, brought him with her to shop at Foodland and often ate lunch with him, sharing his favorite meal: teriyaki steak from Okazuya Deli in Honokowai.

Last year, when an investor bought the complex, paving the way to turn the building into vacation rentals, Kamaunu, Hingano, Tam Lung and a number of other tenants teamed up to convince the county to step in and save their home.

Etina Hingano in front the Lahaina Crossroads Apartments. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023
Aaron Kamaunu poses for a portrait in the backyard of his client’s home in 2023. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

For Kamaunu, the county purchase of the building for $11 million came too late. So Kamaunu and his 72-year-old wife ended up moving in with Jim Peck, an elderly client a mile away on Alio Street.

That’s where, on the morning of Aug. 8, Kamaunu saw an announcement on his phone that a brush fire had broken out a couple miles away but was fully contained.

The winds howled around him — louder than he’d heard ever before — so he stayed at his client’s bedside on the second floor all day. Every time he stepped onto the lanai to survey the situation, the fire continued to smolder.

“There was no organization. No alert. No telling people in residential areas to get the heck out of here.” –Aaron Kamaunu

Kamaunu, who served in the U.S. Army before becoming a policeman, had expected to hear the wail of civil defense sirens. The warnings instead came from neighbors who peddled their bikes, skateboards and scooters up the road to survey the smoke.

“There was no organization. No alert. No telling people in residential areas to get the heck out of here,” Kamaunu said. “None of that happened. What the hell?”

Then came the roaring of the fire, so loud it sounded like the engine of a 747 thundering down an airstrip.

No Time To Escape

At Lahaina Crossroads, the roar was so loud that Hingano had to yell to be heard by neighbors a few feet away.

She’d had the day off from work and hadn’t worried about the fire until the winds kicked up after 3 p.m., screeching through the apartment complex’s windows. Her husband had just left with their truck to go to work at the Royal Lahaina.

Everyone knew Freeman Tam Lung as “Uncle Freeman”, the friendly kupuna in apartment No. 3 on the ground floor. (Courtesy of Aaron Kamaunu/2022) Courtesy of Aaron Kamaunu/2022

Then she heard blasts in the distance. Were propane tanks exploding in homes? She rushed downstairs to Tam Lung’s apartment, but despite the clear sounds of approaching danger, he didn’t want to leave. As neighbors fled in their cars in panic, he wanted to stay.

Finally, after Hingano declared she wouldn’t leave without him, Tam Lung agreed to go with her on foot, armed with his walking stick.

They hadn’t even gotten off the property when his t-shirt caught fire from the embers flying around them. Hingano smothered the flames with her hands.

“Aunty, we got to go,” Hingano remembers a young man on a skateboard shouting at her as she and Tam Lung slowly made their way through the parking lot. “You got to leave him!”

“I can’t leave him,” Hingano said she called back, so the young man helped her guide Tam Lung off the property. Luckily, a fence that separated the property from Front Street had fallen down, creating a shortcut.

With the air choked with smoke, they stumbled down Lahaina’s main drag. Dozens of cars were trapped on the road, blocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Hingano yelled to the people to leave their vehicles.

She knew they would die if they didn’t.

A Calmer Exit On The South Side

On the other side of town, Kamaunu got into his 2004 Toyota Camry to try and make a final attempt to warn his friends after the phone lines went down. But as soon as he rolled out of the neighborhood, traffic was at a standstill. Black smoke filled the air. He realized he needed to turn around and leave too.

Back at the house, he packed up a portable oxygen machine, walker, wheelchair, bottles of life-saving pills for his client’s heart condition and important documents. He and his wife packed a few days of clothes. In the rush, Kamaunu was so focused on getting everyone out that he forgot his own medication.

As the neighborhood around him entered a state of panic, Kamaunu spoke calmly to the 99-year-old. Peck had served in World War II, and despite the chaos that afternoon, he didn’t appear worried either.

“I have to give the old man credit, because he kept his calm,” Kamaunu said.

The caregiver slowly lifted his client from the bed. Step by step, they slowly descended to the ground floor.

The shoreline near Kamaunu’s client’s home, which burned down on the southern end of Lahaina town. (Courtesy of Gabe Lucy/2023) Courtesy Gabe Lucy

Heading To The Sea

As smoke and pieces of burning debris swirled in the air around them, Hingano and Tam Lung made the slow journey a third of a mile away past Bubba Gump’s oceanfront restaurant, where a high rock wall separated Front Street from the sea. She knew the wall would block the fire, but she wondered whether, if things got bad enough, it could crumble with explosions.

Animated map tracing the route from Lahaina Crossroads Apartments, up Front Street and into the ocean.
The route Etina Hingano and Freeman Tam Lung took to escape the fires in Lahaina. (Map data ©2023 Google) Map data ©2023 Google

“There was nowhere else to go. There was no time,” Hingano said. “The wind was blowing the fire so strong, there was no safe place.”

Hingano scoured the wall until she found a rock high enough that Tam Lung could step down on. He struggled to climb over; Hingano guided him over the edge. She climbed down until she reached the ocean, wetting their shirts to cover their faces from the worst of the smoke.

From the ocean, where the raging winds sprayed smoke and salt water on her face, Hingano watched the fire consume Lahaina. A dozen other people had also taken refuge in the water near Hingano, the place that she believed was their only option for survival.

She’s not exactly sure when, but at some point after she helped direct others to wet their shirts, Tam Lung crawled back up to the top of the wall. He wanted to watch Lahaina, his hometown, as it burned.

“Freeman, you’re going to die up there!” Hingano yelled.

He threw a shaka and smiled.

“I’m good, sister.”

An Eery View From The Distance

A mile south, Kamaunu planned his escape route. In the midst of the chaos, he and other neighbors learned that a fireman who lived nearby had cut the lock to an additional access gate to the southern end of Front Street that was normally locked. At that point, the stretch of road hadn’t been blocked by lines of cars.

As Kamaunu helped his wife and client into his old Toyota Camry, they watched the blaze rip through buildings on the edge of their neighborhood, and he knew they wouldn’t be coming back. His wife didn’t believe it.

He pulled out onto the road, joining other families driving away from the inferno. As the glow of the fire and black smoke swallowed the town in his rearview mirror, Kamaunu was shocked by how many people stood frozen along the sidewalk of the south end of Front Street leaving Lahaina. He thought they looked like “zombies,” transfixed on the flames instead of fleeing to safety.

Wired with adrenaline, Kamaunu wondered: “What are you doing? It’s coming.”

“You can see it’s already roaring down.”

‘I’m Going To Die’

On Front Street, cars had begun to explode. Hingano clung to a boulder in chest-high water to stop herself from being sucked out by the waves, made even more violent by the wind. Tam Lung was still on a rock near the top of the wall when she heard him begin to call out for her.

“Where are you?” he called.

Hingano will never know if he was calling out to find out whether she was alright, or if he was asking for help. The air was too thick with smoke to see, but Hingano tried to follow his voice, climbing up the rock wall to try and convince him one last time to come down lower near the water.

Her eyes burned from the salt and smoke. Then a truck above her exploded, blasting her body backward into the water. The impact knocked the wind out of her; she couldn’t breathe.

“I’m going to die,” she thought. “I’m not going to live through this.”

Where Would They Go?

At first, Kamaunu hoped that he could come up with a plan at Puamana Beach Park, a mile away. But cellphone service still wasn’t working, and it didn’t take long for the flames to push toward them. So Kamaunu kept driving toward Kahului, stopping along the way at a payphone in Olowalu. The phone line was down there, too.

Animated map tracing the route from Kamaunu's house to out of Lahaina.
The route Aaron Kamaunu took to escape the fires in Lahaina. (Map data ©2023 Google) Map data ©2023 Google

Smoke filled the sky and Kamaunu couldn’t tell if it was day or night. But Peck was in good spirits. He kept joking to Kamaunu and his wife that as long as they reclined his seat back, they’d all be comfortable sleeping in the car together.

“He was just making these little jokes,” Kamaunu recalled. “He’s been through a lot through his life.”

It wasn’t until several more miles down the road, when they began to turn around the cliffs toward Maalaea, that Kamaunu’s phone began buzzing with alerts, text messages and missed calls from loved ones and friends.

He called Peck’s daughter to tell her that her father was safe. But now it was dark in Central Maui, and at least two other fires raged on the slopes of Haleakala. Where would they go?

A Watery Prayer

That night in the water, Hingano shivered and clung to another Lahaina Crossroads neighbor who happened to end up in the same stretch of water as the world around them burned.

They decided that they wouldn’t feel safe getting out until they’d counted the explosions of at least 30 cars that they figured were near them on Front Street. When each car exploded, they welcomed the warmth on their skin.

In the water, she said a prayer:

“Heavenly Father, I don’t know what it is, but if it is your will that I die then I accept that. But if it is that I should live, I accept that too.”

But she said in her mind, she thought of her grandchildren and knew she wanted to stay alive.

The intersection of Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass on the night of the fire. The swiftness of the blaze forced a number of people to take refuge in the ocean.(Zeke Kalua/County of Maui/2023) Zeke Kalua/County of Maui/2023

After the blasts stopped, she crawled up the wall to Tam Lung. She knew he was gone, but she sat next to him and spoke to him for a moment. He was still laying on the high rock next to Front Street, where he’d gone to watch the fire.

Hingano couldn’t help but think about how, before her mother died years ago, she wanted to drive around the island to see all of the places that mattered to her. For Tam Lung, she knew that place was Lahaina. He’d told Kamaunu stories about growing up there, how he used to walk the streets as a child before some of them were paved.

Hingano has no way of knowing when Tam Lung took his last breath.

By her own math, she must have been in and out of the water, hiding under whatever she could to shelter from the fumes and smoke, from almost 4 p.m. until she was rescued by firefighters — who drove by in a firetruck and transported her and a couple dozen other people to safety — after 1 a.m.

“I was numb to everything,” Hingano recalled. “No tears came to my eyes. There was only gratitude that we made it.”

Were His Friends Alive?

That evening, after scrambling to make calls, Kamaunu got 99-year-old Peck into a hospice facility in Wailuku where he could receive around-the-clock care until they could move him in with one of his daughters in Kona. Kamaunu and his wife, meanwhile, sheltered with family friends in Spreckelsville for the first two nights, then moved in with friends in Kihei.

For the first three days, Kamaunu couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened to his friends. He read in the news that Lahaina was gone; flattened as if it were hit by a bomb. More than a thousand people were missing. He tried calling Tam Lung and Hingano’s phones more than a dozen times. He left a voicemail for her husband. Were they alive?

Crews clear Front Street in Lahania town Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. A wildfire destroyed the historic town two days earlier. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The Lahaina Crossroads Apartments, at the right, is still standing. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023) Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023

Three days after his hometown was incinerated, his phone rang. On the other end of the line, he heard the voice of his longtime friend.

Hingano sobbed. She told him how she ran down Front Street, yelling at people to leave their cars. How she had dunked fabric in salt water to help friends and strangers breathe through the smoke. When they choked on the air, she told them to spit out the ash.

She told him how she begged Tam Lung to get behind the wall near the ocean with her and stay low.

“I tried everything, Aaron,” Hingano said.

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help you,” he told his friend. “I couldn’t get to you.”

The Aftermath

In the days that followed, Kamaunu felt anger. He was pissed off at government leaders, not the first responders putting their own lives on the line that day. Why hadn’t officials learned from the fire in 2018 that started in the same area? Why were there no evacuation alerts, no sirens?

At least 115 people died in the fire, and hundreds are still missing. Many of the first victims officially identified by Maui officials were senior citizens.

He felt sad for his friend, Hingano, and how she’d have to carry that night with her for the rest of her life. He felt sad that she and so many other neighbors wouldn’t be able to come back to the home that they’d fought so hard to protect in the years before.

Someone texted him a photograph of the burnt Lahaina Crossroads Apartments – a zoomed-in shot from a helicopter – that showed the four-story, cinder block structure still standing. It still wore the old light green paint, although charred, while the old lumber buildings around it had crumbled to ash.

The Lahaina Crossroads Apartments was damaged but is still standing after the fire. (Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources/2023) Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources/2023

Kaumanu scanned the photograph, trying to make out the burned-out cars still sitting in the parking lot. Did their owners make it out?

Even though Hingano lost her apartment and her job, she returned to Lahaina as soon as she could. Like hundreds of other Lahaina residents, Hingano hasn’t been allowed back to her charred former home, so she instead moved into the Royal Lahaina, where her husband works as an engineer.

Etina Hingano at a shelter after evacuating from the Lahaina fire. She’s had trouble sleeping since the fire. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

For the first few days, she couldn’t sleep. She’d wake up with nightmares of the waves she feared would sweep her out to sea. Other times, she’d hear Tam Lung’s voice.

Since the fire, she’s thought long and hard about what might have made things go differently. And she has come to a different conclusion than Kamaunu, who believes different choices could have saved people’s lives.

The raging winds were too strong, she said, after days of going over and over the afternoon in her mind. The fire ate up the town within 20 minutes, leaving no time to warn her and her neighbors.

“Everybody’s blaming everybody,” Hingano said. “I can tell you right now, unless there was a tidal wave, no water could have cured that.”

“I did think I was going to die,” she continued. “But I’m glad that God let me live.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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