It Felt Like a Nightmare. 'Then You Realize You're Burning'

The AP has the story of Lahaina residents whose split-second decisions saved them
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 15, 2023 12:45 AM CDT
It Felt Like a Nightmare. 'Then You Realize You're Burning'
Wildfire wreckage is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. The search of the wildfire wreckage on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Thursday revealed a wasteland of burned out homes and obliterated communities as firefighters battled the deadliest blaze in the U.S. in recent years.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In Lahaina, Hawaii, there were no sirens, no one with bullhorns, no one to tell anyone what to do: Residents were on their own to choose whether to stay or to run, and where to run to—through smoke so thick it blinded them, flames closing in from every direction, cars exploding, toppled power lines and uprooted trees, fire whipping through the wind and raining down. The AP has stories of split-second decisions that ultimately determined whether people lived or died in a race against the flames. Mike Cicchino had to make those decisions last Tuesday. Around 3:30pm he ran into his house and told his wife they needed to leave.

They ran to the car with five dogs and called police, and a dispatcher said to follow the traffic. Access to the main highway—the only road leading in and out of Lahaina—was cut off by barricades set up by authorities. The roadblocks forced Cicchino onto gridlocked Front Street, where people were panicking, crying, screaming, honking. Some were abandoning cars and fleeing on foot. The people sitting in their cars saw black smoke ahead. "We're all driving into a death trap," Cicchino thought. He told his wife: "We need to run for our lives." They got the dogs out. But it was impossible to know which way to run. "Behind us, straight ahead, beside us, everywhere was on fire," Cicchino said.

It had been less than 15 minutes since he left his house, and he thought it was the end. He called his mother, his brother, his daughter to tell them he loved them. The black smoke was so thick they could see only the white dogs, not the three dark ones, and they lost them. "It was like a war," Cicchino said. They could tell how close the fire was coming based on how far away the cars sounded when they exploded. A seawall separates the town from the ocean, and Cicchino and others were faced with a horrific decision: stay on burning land or go to the water. The sea was churning and treacherous even for strong swimmers, as the wind kicked up the waves. Cicchino and his wife jumped over the wall.

story continues below

Cicchino and his wife took off their shirts, dunked them in water, and tried to cover their faces. He saw dead bodies slumped next to the wall. "Help me," people screamed. Elderly and disabled people couldn't make it over the wall on their own. Some were badly burned, and Cicchino lifted as many as he could. He ran until he vomited from the smoke, his eyes nearly swollen shut. For the next five or six hours, they moved back and forth between sea and shore. They crouched behind the wall, trying to get as low as they could. When flames fell from the sky, they dunked themselves into the water. "My mind kept going back to: This has got to be just a nightmare. This cannot be real," he said. "But then you realize you're burning. I'm feeling pain, and I don't feel pain in nightmares." (The full story tells of Cicchino's rescue and the nightmares he has had since.)

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