Harrowing Eyewitness Accounts Cast Doubt On Official Lahaina Fire Narrative

Those who fled the fire by car tell of being blocked or funneled into narrow gridlocked streets. The county has not said when it will release a detailed report on what happened.

Photo: Courtesy Beth Zivitski

Even as the public awaits a detailed analysis of the evacuation of Lahaina on Aug. 8, eyewitness accounts are raising questions about the official narrative of the catastrophic fire.

Why, for instance, were vehicles directed away from escape routes because of downed power lines when Hawaiian Electric says that the lines were not energized?

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier says that police tried to keep vehicles away from fallen power lines, which they believed to be electrified. But HECO says the lines actually were “de-energized” more than six hours before the fire started its rapid spread.

The utility, meanwhile, says that it was unaware that any of its vehicles or crews blocked roads or evacuation routes.

Yet Lahaina resident Amanda Cassidy told Civil Beat that on the south end of town, she encountered utility crews blocking lanes where Front Street met Route 30, contributing to the traffic as she, her brother and her boyfriend fled by car.

“I know 100% that there were utility workers … and they were blocking the lane. They weren’t allowing people to pass,” Cassidy said.

Burned out cars remained piled up on Front Street in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire. Numerous evacuees were stuck in gridlock there after being funneled into the heart of town.
Burned-out cars remained piled up on Front Street in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire. Numerous evacuees were stuck in gridlock there after being funneled into the heart of town. (Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat/2023)

“There was only one lane open because we had to go around them. They were blocking it, and they were only letting a certain amount of people go at a time.”

Cassidy said she didn’t see any police officers or other emergency personnel as they crossed through that intersection. The utility crews also had a truck blocking lanes there as they worked on nearby downed poles. “They were telling people what to do,” she said.

Pelletier has said that police aimed to keep vehicles “away from the danger.”

But survivors of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century have described nightmare scenarios in which their cars and trucks were funneled onto Front Street and other nearby small roads, only to become snarled in gridlock as they tried to escape and the blaze spread.

Two key routes out of town — state Route 30, also known as Honoapi‘ilani Highway, and Lahaina Bypass — were either fully or partially closed that day as hurricane-fueled winds pushed several dozen power lines into the roadways and the fire spread.

Multiple survivors of the ordeal say that police at certain times that afternoon directed cars away from those main routes, pushing them instead onto narrower streets. There, they inched forward at agonizingly slow speeds as the wildfire swiftly descended, moving to the north and the west.

“Being stuck on those little tiny roads with nowhere to go, you just can’t kind of help but feel like you were a rat stuck in a maze,” said Noelani Todt, who got mired in gridlock with her mother and three children, ages 14, 5 and 3, as they fled north through town.

“But you couldn’t move. You literally were just stuck,” Todt added. It took her family about two and a half hours to navigate through Lahaina from their home near Lahainaluna Road to an acquaintance’s house a safe distance away to the north, in Napili. Typically that drive takes about 20 minutes.

Lahaina wildfire survivors say that police directed vehicles down Lahainaluna Road and past Route 30, toward Front Street. Maui police have yet to provide details on how they handled the evacuation.
Lahaina wildfire survivors say that police directed vehicles down Lahainaluna Road and past Route 30, toward Front Street. Maui police have yet to provide details on how they handled the evacuation. (Courtesy of Aaron Kim/2023)

Survivors also faced bottleneck traffic at both the key northern and southern ends of Front Street as vehicles fled Lahaina.

The obstacles that Lahaina drivers faced as they tried to flee the onslaught of smoke, heat and flames remains a topic of debate more than a month after the fire occurred.

A clear and comprehensive picture of how local authorities directed the traffic and where they had blocked off streets has not yet been publicly released.

Maui police and other county authorities continue to withhold evacuation details despite the enormous public interest and repeated attempts by Civil Beat and other media outlets to get answers.

Pelletier has instead implored the public to wait for an official “after-action” report to get details — but he hasn’t said when that report might be available.

To what extent the police and other emergency personnel blocked traffic – and at what points in time during the fire – remains unclear.

Phone-camera footage recorded by survivor Jonathan Herzog after he abandoned his car in a parking lot and fled on foot shows Maui police cars impeding at least part of the intersection where Front Street meets Route 30 on the north side of town. Herzog’s footage has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube.

Todt said that when she and her family made it to that intersection, after 5:30 p.m., a single police officer was directing traffic. He would alternate between letting the Front Street and Route 30 traffic pass, she said.

“I don’t know if he had a method to the madness,” Todt said. “It was just definitely a giant bottleneck. I don’t think the police officer’s eyes could have been any wider or rounder. You could tell he was just definitely doing the absolute best that he could do given the situation, because he was watching (the fire) come down.”

The traffic and evacuation routes that day were clearly stifled by concerns over the downed power lines.

It’s not clear why officials would be confused over the power lines’ status. At 3:30 p.m., right as the fire started to spread, Hawaiian Electric even released a statement that it was “working closely with County of Maui Emergency Management Agency and other emergency response organizations.”

Noelani Todt recounts her family’s journey out of Lahaina. (Map data ©2023 Google)

Quick Decisions Behind The Wheel

Cassidy and others said they managed to escape by making split-second decisions while stuck in traffic — either to get out of line, cut through an open parking lot or even willfully disregard instructions from police.

Jonathan Chee, whose family lives above town on Kanakea Loop, part of the Kelawea Mauka neighborhood, said that he implored a police officer near his house to stop directing his neighbors down Kahena Street, in the direction of the fire, as they all tried to evacuate.

“I said, ‘You know what? if you send everyone down that way, you’re going to get them all killed,” Chee recalled. “Everyone (is) going to die if they go down there. Plus, it’s gridlock.”

Chee, his wife, and about 100 other residents escaped the fire, he said, by breaking down a Maui Department of Water Supply gate with the help of a different Maui police officer to create their own path to Lahaina Bypass, which they used to evacuate south.

Kelawea Mauka residents, including Jonathan Chee, fled the Lahaina fire by breaking down a Maui Department Water Supply gate and cutting through a parking lot to get to Lahainaluna Road and the bypass. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Cassidy, who lived in the same neighborhood as Chee and whose house was among the first to burn that afternoon, opted to drive into the center of town first to warn friends about the wildfire before she, her brother and boyfriend escaped.

The trio wove into oncoming lanes when no cars were approaching, cut through open parking lots, and opted at the last second to go south on Front instead of north when Cassidy saw that direction was moving faster.

“There were four points that could have ended our lives,” said Cassidy, who tended bar at The Dirty Monkey prior to the fire. “And those were all traffic points.”

Todt, Cassidy and others stuck in the traffic recalled seeing the wildfire follow them in their rear window and thinking that other motorists trapped behind them were likely dying in those moments.

“I’m pretty sure the people that were stuck behind me were getting burned up. I don’t know how else to say that,” said Amber Coontz, a Lahaina resident who fled south around 5 p.m. that day in traffic crawling south on Route 30.

“Nobody knew what was going on.”

‘Everybody Decided To Forget Traffic Laws’

Some survivors said that as motorists escaped the fire, police prevented drivers heading out of the hills on Lahainaluna Road from turning either left or right onto Route 30.

Instead, those drivers had to proceed past the main highway toward Front street.

The police did this by placing cones and parking a police car in the intersection, according to Cassidy and Anne Rivers, Todt’s mother. Rivers caravanned down Lahainaluna with Todt and her three grandchildren in a separate car.

Both Cassidy and Todt’s family wound up turning onto Wainee Street, an artery that runs parallel to Front Street a couple of blocks inland. There, traffic ground to a virtual standstill, both parties said. Both parties eventually turned left on Baker Street to get back on Front.

"4:37pm and the property next to the parking garage is hot enough I'm afraid the tires will start melting and it was uncomfortably hot in the car."
This phone picture, taken from inside Noelani Todt’s car at 4:37 p.m., shows wind whipping the fire and embers past drivers on Baker Street as a parking lot goes up in flames. (Courtesy: Noelani Todt)

While they were on Baker, at around 4:20 p.m., the afternoon sky turned black from the smoke, Todt said. She and her children first saw the sparks and embers shooting across the road sideways. Then they saw the Outlets of Maui parking lot and the other buildings around them go up in flames as they slowly crept along. Rivers was in a separate car several lengths ahead.

“At this point, when the fire started, everybody decided to forget traffic laws,” Todt said. The cars heading toward Front took over the oncoming traffic lane and pressed forward. “Everyone was on their horns.”

Then, Todt and her children started to feel the heat.

“We were too close, and It was literally getting to the point that I was worried that my tires were going to melt into the ground,” Todt said. She managed to maneuver the car closer to the middle of the road “so you didn’t feel like you were baking.”

The fire followed them onto Front Street. “This whole time, the cloud is just chasing you,” Todt said.

The car directly behind them caught fire, she said. Todt said she’s not sure what happened to the woman who was driving the vehicle. “Had anybody gotten out of their car, we would’ve all been just screwed because we would have been stuck,” she said.

Before they fled their house near Lahainaluna, Todt had grabbed rain jackets and surgical masks for her kids. While stuck on Front Street, she thought about the inner tubes and pool noodles at the house she had not thought to bring. Those could have been useful if the family had had to abandon their car and run for the ocean.

“What was I going to do to float two kids that don’t swim well?” Todt said, referring to her 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “The hindsight stuff is awful.”

Numbers and a word are written on Maui Police Chief John Pelletier’s palm during a press conference Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in Wailuku. The gathering was to share information on those missing and the process to identify remains found in the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier hasn’t provided details on how police directed and handled traffic that day, but he said that officers steered people “away from the danger.”. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Where Todt had made a right turn onto Front Street, Cassidy several minutes earlier had opted to turn left instead and go south.

The traffic, she said, was moving about 5 to 10 mph in the southbound lane but it was hardly moving at all heading north. Many of the northbound drivers she passed didn’t realize the danger, Cassidy said.

“There was no fear on their face yet. They had no idea how bad it is yet because it’s all blowing north, northwest. They’re going into it,” she recalled.

After driving nearly 2 miles south on Front, Cassidy said she saw a couple of large pickup trucks turn left out of the traffic onto Aholo Street. She didn’t know where that route led but that she opted to follow the trucks because the drivers appeared to be locals who would know where to go.

From Aholo, they turned right onto Puapihi Street, which runs parallel to Front, and managed to bypass much of the remaining Lahaina traffic. They hit the gridlock again, however, at the end Puapihi, where it hits Front and Front then merges with Route 30.

It’s where Cassidy said the utility crews were blocking most of the exit.

Limited Options

Earlier that afternoon, before she fled her Kelawea Mauka home, Maui state Rep. Elle Cochran watched the houses below hers catch fire. Cochran said she also watched firefighters try in vain to fight the blaze with minimal water pressure coming out of hydrants and hoses.

“At that point, I’m on the phone to (Maui Fire) Chief Brad Ventura,” Cochran recalled.

“I’m like, ‘Hey Chief, it’s Elle. Do I need to evacuate right now?’ He goes, ‘Why?’ I go, “Because there’s a really huge fire right now.’ He goes, ‘Oh, let me call you back. I’m in Colorado on vacation,” Cochran recalled.

“(That’s) exactly what he told me while I’m watching this whole street go up in flames. Chief of Fire didn’t know what the hell was going on,” she said.

Ventura had been accompanying his daughter to college for the start of the school year when the fire hit. Both Cochran and Ventura, who responded through county officials, say that he called her right back. Cochran said that he told her to evacuate.

Rep Elle Cochran represents the district surrounding Lahaina where most of the fires took place. She evacuated her neighborhood in heavy traffic out of the hills above Lahainaluna town. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023))

Todt, meanwhile, said that she didn’t get an alert on her phone to evacuate until 4:17 — about 30 minutes after her family actually fled.

Cochran said she managed to evacuate in bumper-to-bumper traffic that funneled through the neighboring Kahoma Homes subdivision. “We only had one way out,” she said.

That limited exit, heading in the direction of the fire, was precisely what had concerned Chee, who lived in the same neighborhood, and had prompted him to urge a police officer directing residents not to send them that way.

Chee had alternately tried to clear a path to the Lahaina Bypass road by sawing through a locked chain on a nearby Department of Water Supply gate, but his Sawzall blade wasn’t strong enough, he said. Soon, another police officer approached and he convinced the cop to help him break down the gate.

“He listened to us,” Chee recalled. “He either going to, or we going to do it. It don’t matter. This is survival. Laws don’t apply to this thing.”

Chee said that emergency crews had shut down the bypass at Keawe Street at that point. Had they opened it, many more could have accessed the bypass to safely evacuate south because the fire had already swept through there, he said.

He added that not far from Keawe Street, two other members of Chee’s family, a nephew and a cousin, helped multiple survivors flee by breaking a locked gate that barred access to an old cane haul road used by the former Pioneer Mill sugar plantation. The road, he said, served for some as an alternative escape route north of town, running parallel to Route 30.

It’s not exactly clear who had control of that gate or who would have locked it at the time of the fire.

Much of that cane haul road runs through state-owned land where an affordable housing development, Kaiaulu Kuku‘ia, is currently being built. Officials with the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. said in an emailed statement that the road is only being used for construction and not meant for public use.

They added, however, that they don’t control the property that includes the gate — and further that they don’t know who owns it.

Online records with the Maui County Real Property Assessment Division show that two private entities, West Maui Venture Group and Keawe Street Investment, own parcels near the gate. John Kean, a West Maui Venture Group general partner, said that some years ago Pioneer Mill Co. had retained the rights the to use the cane haul road. He didn’t specify whether that included controlling the gate near Keawe Street.

Federal records show that Pioneer Mill is now a subsidiary of KLC Land Co. Company officials could not be reached for comment. An updated voicemail greeting from another subsidiary, Kaanapali Land Management Corp., said that its office had burned down in the fire.

‘I Just See The Embers’

The traffic started to clear up on Route 30 just past the Civic Center and police station, Todt said, where fallen power poles had sprawled across all but one lane. Todt and her family made it to Napili at around 6:30 p.m., but they didn’t feel safe, she said.

“You could breathe for a minute,” she said, but added that “it didn’t feel far enough” away. The family also didn’t know at that point whether Rivers’ husband, Clem Vianueva, had survived. Vianueva did evacuate to the south, however, by driving over the power lines that had fallen on Route 30.

Noelani Todt drove members of her family, including daughters Kayla Huxen, 14, and Mahea Todt, 4, out of Lahaina along Front Street as the fire swept its way north through the town. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Todt and Rivers stayed up all night monitoring the glow of the fire to the south.

The family continues to cope with trauma in the aftermath. Todt’s daughter Kayla Huxen, 14, didn’t unpack her evacuation bags for days, she said.

“I’ve had a couple moments where I’ve turned off the light, and your eyes are re-adjusting to the dark and I just see the embers,” Huxen said. “And so I have to turn the light back on and sit there for a minute and realize no, we’re safe.”

Rivers added that the younger children, Kili, 5, and Mahea, 4, “have seen way too much” for their age. Mahea was 3 years old during the fire.

When the family flew to Oahu over the Labor Day weekend to be with Todt’s brother, Todt said she had a momentary panic staring down at the houses packed into the hillside above Kalani High School, near Kahala.

“There’s too many people, too close together and there’s too many roofs to burn,” she recalled thinking. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but I did have to sit there for a few minutes and take a couple breaths. It doesn’t feel very settling.”

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

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