A quick realization that the normal rules no longer applied and a sense of immediacy led some to safety.

Once Fanny Fong decided to flee the flames in Lahaina on Aug. 8, she was out the door so fast she didn’t even bother to put on her shoes.

It was the in-her-face willfulness of her 8-year-old daughter that convinced Yayoi Hara to leap into the car with her family and speed off to safety.

When Mike Cicchino jumped into the ocean, he had to abandon his car and figure out a way to transport the five dogs that had been entrusted to his care, carrying the two smallest in his arms as he headed toward the water.

Menacing smoke billowing over Lahaina at about 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7
Menacing smoke began blanketing Lahaina by late Tuesday afternoon, causing residents to take quick action to escape pending disaster. (Courtesy Beth Zivitski)

Many harrowing survival stories have emerged from the ashes of the terrible fire that nearly destroyed Lahaina on Aug. 8. But among the tales a common theme has emerged.

In the absence of government warnings or alerts, one thing that most of the survivors share is that, on their own, they made a split-second decision — sacrificing possessions, walking away from their cars, breaking traffic laws or defying police, all because they had the presence of mind to recognize the imminence of risk and to take quick action to escape.

Some sped the opposite way on one-way roads to get around the traffic gridlock on Lahainaluna Road. Some drove on the wrong side of the street and careened up on sidewalks to get around the fatal chokepoints. Some reportedly used cars as battering rams to pass through obstacles when terrified fellow motorists refused to let them cross the lane through traffic-clogged streets. Some jumped into cars with strangers to hitch a ride to survival. Some jumped into the ocean, confronting turbulent waves and hypothermia to escape the flames.

They went with their gut instincts, even as what they did was at odds with conventional behavior.

This is a known phenomenon.

According to Amanda Ripley, author of “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why,” published in 2009, disaster victims first struggle with disbelief at what is unfolding, then enter what she called “frantic deliberation” before plunging into action. The biggest danger is procrastination, she reported, deciding to do nothing or moving too slowly in the face of danger.

Many who die in any disaster, of course, are overwhelmed by circumstances that spiral out of control. Those with limited mobility or age-related disabilities may also lack the ability to evacuate a dangerous situation quickly.

Survivors say that others in Lahaina seem to have panicked or become frozen in terror, gripping their steering wheels and sitting immobilized in gridlocked traffic, a completely understandable reaction to the combination of swirling black smoke, pounding winds and cascading embers that descended upon them.

But those who survived did so because their unconventional split-second reactions are what Mary Schoenfeldt, a national expert on mental health following disasters, called examples of a “successful response” to an emergency.

“They say, ‘This might be an unusual action, but it could save my life,’” Schoenfeldt said. “We need to do whatever we need to survive.”

A Day Off For Three Friends

Fanny Fong, Ray Vega and Ali Spratt fit this pattern. They are three friends who are so close that they finish each other’s sentences.

Fanny, a manager at Mid-Pacific Tattoo, and Ali, an underwater photographer, met and became dear friends when they landed as roommates at an old plantation-style home in central Lahaina. The seven people living there spent happy hours hanging out in the property’s lush, tropical backyard.

It’s expensive living on Maui and the two women frequently also worked together, picking up side money by hosting bingo games at local sports bars.

From left, Ali, Ray and Fanny escaped the fire in Lahaina on Aug. 8. They now live at a rental in Kihei. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
From left, Ali Spratt, Ray Vega and Fanny Fong escaped the fire in Lahaina on Aug. 8. They now live at a rental in Kihei. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Then Fanny met a fellow Californian, Ray, through a close mutual friend, and they fell in love. Ray had been working as a bouncer in a strip bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and, after dodging one bullet too many, he felt he needed a change. Last year, he moved to Lahaina, and soon he, Fanny and Ali formed a tight trio.

Ray got a job as a bouncer near the tattoo shop and Ali would come over and join them after work for dinner.

In June, Fanny made a fateful decision. She lived so close to work and the beach that she hadn’t really needed a car. Her friend Ali had a car, and she could rely on her. But that month, she learned of an opportunity to buy a 2014 Scion XB, a deal of a car with only 30,000 miles on it, the first dependable vehicle she had had in years. It seemed like such a good bargain that Fanny took the plunge.

On Aug. 8, the Scion XB became their lifeline.

Fanny and Ray woke up that morning and quickly noticed that the winds were high and the power was out. Fanny was off work that day and Ray had taken some leave for health reasons. Ray set off with a friend to get gas for the generator to preserve the food in the refrigerator and when he came back, they settled down for a day of fun.

“In typical Lahaina fashion, when the power goes down …,” Fanny said. “People start drinking,” Ray finished for her.

Their friend Ali showed up in distress. Huge tree limbs had fallen onto her apartment, crashing through the roof and landing on her car, leaving it badly damaged. She rode over on her bike to get help and Fanny drove back with her in the Scion to help Ali collect her possessions and her cat, Carlos, to wait out the windstorm with them.

Through the day, the three friends watched the winds get stronger, and suddenly realized that fire was quickly approaching the house. Fanny and Ali decided they had to flee. By now, Ray was napping on the couch and at first he resisted the women’s warnings, thinking they were overreacting.

But when Vega, who is 6-foot-3 inches and weighed 230 pounds, went out the door, he found himself nearly swept off his feet by a particularly strong gust.

In her haste, Fanny left behind her backpack, a stash of cash that represented her life savings, and even discarded her shoes, worried that they would slip and slow her down.

The three jumped into the Scion. By now they all realized they were in mortal peril.

"3:48pm this is us turning onto Lahainaluna Road while evacuating. Heading down the hill toward Front Street."
Motorists such as Noelani Todt found themselves stuck in traffic even as flames advanced. (Courtesy Noelani Todt)

Panicked, Fanny set off down Panaewa Street, heading west toward the ocean, and turned right at Luakini Street, which runs into Lahainaluna Road, her normal route to the highway. But she encountered a police barricade at Lahainaluna and Wainee Street, forcing her to move instead toward Front Street. Traffic was gridlocked.

Fanny sat stunned for a moment, barely moving ahead, as the car was engulfed in smoke. She was thinking about what to do. Ray and Ali, shouting and swearing, began urging her to move over to the other side of the road, and drive in the empty oncoming lane.

She lurched the car to the left on Front Street, swinging around the parked line of cars.

Once in the other lane, they moved steadily up Front Street, gesturing to other motorists to follow their example. But many sat stock still, seemingly immobilized, they recalled.

When an oncoming car came their way, Fanny swerved onto the sidewalk on the other side of the road, avoiding a collision but maintaining her progress. Then she cut through the Longs parking lot, also neatly evading traffic congestion.

“My brain said, ‘No rules apply now,’” Fanny recalled, adding that the support of her friends gave her the confidence to take the steps she did.

“We’re kind of rule-breakers anyway,” she said.

At last the three of them emerged onto Highway 30 and soon shot free from the corridor that was becoming a deathtrap. They kept driving north, to Napili, ending up at the house of a friend who lived there.

All three lost their homes to the flames.

Now they are taking the steps to recover. Fanny shared Ali’s shoes until she could get some new ones of her own. Ray and Fanny found an apartment in Kihei; Ali took a unit near them on the second floor. Their friendship has grown even stronger.

Ray thinks Fanny’s quick actions might have spared their lives.

“If she hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said. “She saved us.”

Abandoning A Car

Quick action also saved Mike Cicchino, his wife and five dogs that had been entrusted to his care.

Cicchino, who lived in Lahaina and operated a dog day-care business, had been trying to drive out of town for nearly an hour when his vehicle, funneled onto Front Street by road blockades, parted the thick cloak of black smoke hovering over the town to meet the ferocious red heart of the fire.

The 37-year-old knew how fire worked. In his 20s, he’d helped supervise sugar cane field burns at harvest time. He’d seen some of these so-called controlled burns jump the highway, spreading out-of-control with a turn in the wind direction.

Mike Cicchino and his wife spent hours cowering in and by the ocean along with five dogs that were in their care, staying there until the fire subsided enough for them to escape. They returned to Lahainaluna Road recently, accompanied by Mike’s daughter, to survey the wreckage of the area. The little girl was not with them the day of the fire. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Now, headed north in crawling traffic, he decided his odds were grievously low of making it out of town.

“I didn’t say it out loud to my wife, but I knew that we would just cook to death in the car,” Cicchino said. “Basically, we were going to die in the car if we tried to keep going because the fire was right there ahead of us and the traffic was moving so slow.”

It was then that Cicchino made a split decision to abandon the car. He also had to try to manage five dogs of varying sizes and temperaments.

He veered onto the sidewalk in front of Waikiki Brewing Company and thrust the gear in park. Then he exploded into a southbound sprint, his wife and five dogs charging at his heels. At points he carried two of the smaller dogs in his arms.

The fire was consuming more and more of Front Street, eating into the town’s last fringes of unscorched earth and pushing Cicchino and his wife against the stone seawall. They leapt up on top of the wall, standing there in the closing gap between fire and water for as long as their lungs could stand to choke down the black air. Then they ripped off their shirts, wrapped them around their nose and mouth to create an ash filter and jumped into the ocean.

They treaded water for several hours, diving down deep on occasion to avoid hot embers, as they watched the town burn. The air shook with the deafening detonation of every other vehicle on Front Street, many abandoned like their own but some still occupied by those who couldn’t escape.

Cicchino and his wife survived the fire, along with four of the five dogs they fought to keep alive. Asher, a 100-pound chocolate lab, refused to budge as Cicchino and his wife tried to outrun the flames. The four other dogs stayed in the beach or in the water and were later reunited with their families.

In the weeks since the fire, Cicchino has been rattled by nightmares and intrusive thoughts about whether the dog might have survived if he had made a different choice. At the same time, he knows the decisions he made amounted to his own survival, and those of the other animals as well.

“It’s such a mix of different things that I’m dreaming, different scenarios and different things I could have done differently,” Cicchino said. The day’s events continue to haunt him. 

A Stubborn Daughter

Yayoi Hara, who lived on the grounds of her childhood home at Lahaina’s scenic Jodo Mission, woke up on the morning of Aug. 8 expecting to be busy. The next day was the first day of school and Yayoi’s daughter, Mahina, was going to be starting third grade at Kamehameha III Elementary School in Lahaina.

That meant Hara had a million errands to run and things to do to make sure Mahina, a spunky 8-year-old, was ready for the all-important first day.

But her plans were stymied when she realized the power was out. She also learned from neighbors that the police had blocked the roads, making it almost impossible to get through Lahaina. So she and her daughter stayed home at the historic oceanfront temple compound, known for its charming Japanese architecture and 12-foot statue of Buddha.

Tearful Yayoi Hara talks about the day of the fire in Lahaina
Yayoi Hara talks about the day of the fire. She was preparing for her daughter’s return to school the next day when havoc broke loose. She found herself directing a group of Jodo Mission supporters in their efforts to save the temple. Her daughter’s plea helped spare her life. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Through the day, the winds buffeting Lahaina grew more wild and violent. The doors of the temple blew open, and Hara had to ask another neighbor, a carpenter, to help her secure them. They saw white smoke in the sky but were told the fire had been contained.

The neighbor, who was from Southern California and had experienced wildfires before, decided he would evacuate with his family. But Hara decided that the temple, with its wide green lawn, was probably safe from fire, so she would stay where she was and keep watch over the property.

Other friends came to join them at the temple, including a number of elderly people, until about a dozen had gathered there together. One of them reported that she sat in a two-hour traffic backup on Lahainaluna Road, confirming Hara’s belief that she was better off staying at the oceanfront compound that housed the temple than venturing outside the neighborhood.

“I was like, ‘if the traffic is so crazy out there, we might as well stay here like this where we are safe, there’s a big yard,’” she recalled thinking to herself. “If anything, we’ll just get out into the yard, or you know, worst case scenario, we jump into the ocean.”

She assigned tasks to the group at the temple, telling one to prepare dinner and another to tape the windows for gale-force winds, while she tried to start a watering brigade to douse the compound’s roof and lawns.

Gradually and then suddenly, the smoke darkened and wind-born burning embers started to fall from the sky. She tried to put them out one at a time but they started increasing.

Beth Zivitski, a passing motorist, took this photo of the Jodo Mission at 3:47 p.m.
Beth Zivitski, a passing motorist, captured the image of the darkening clouds in a photo she took of the Jodo Mission at 3:47 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8. Yayoi Hara, her daughter and their friends were feverishly trying to save the temple grounds from the blaze at that time. (Courtesy Beth Zivitski)

“Literally, I watched an ember hit a coconut tree and within like a minute, the entire tree was engulfed in flames,” she recalled. “The wind made it into a giant blowtorch.”

She was told the fire was moving up the beach from downtown Lahaina toward her home. She grew worried about the well-being of some of the older people at the property, and she decided it was time for them to evacuate to safety at the Lahaina Civic Center.

As dusk deepened, she ordered them to get into the cars and drive to the center, taking her daughter with them, while, she explained, she would stay behind to fight the flames and protect the historic property and its cultural legacy.

But Mahina adamantly refused to get into the car. If her mother was staying, she would stay with her.

“Mom, I’m not going to leave without you,” she said.

Momentarily miffed by her daughter’s “stubbornness and defiance,” Hara was forced to re-think the situation.

“I didn’t want her to be an unsafe situation and she wouldn’t go without me,” Hara said. “So I said, ‘Get in the car, we are all going together.’ It was a throw-my-hands-up-in-the-air kind of situation.’”

Taking little more than some personal documents, a little cash and some clothes and toiletries to make themselves comfortable during what Hara thought would be a short stay, they drove up to the evacuation center. Hara noted to her surprise that there were no cars on the road.

She later realized the cars had been trapped further down on Front Street and many of their occupants were already dead.

Hara sat on the lawn at the civic center that night, watching the flames over Lahaina. She later learned that the temple and its buildings were engulfed in flames within hours, and by midnight, the complex was “incinerated,” she said.

The one thing that survived was the massive copper-and-bronze statue of Amida Buddha, associated with infinite light and compassion.

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

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