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911 calls from deadly Lahaina wildfire show residents’ terror and panic in a desperate bid to escape

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FILE - The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
FILE - The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Communities still reeling from climate-fueled storms and other natural disasters, from the wildfires in Maui to severe flooding in New England, fear a federal government shutdown will delay needed disaster relief.(Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP, File) Photo Gallery

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Audio of 911 calls from a deadly August wildfire released late Thursday by Maui County authorities reveals a terrifying and chaotic scene as the inferno swept through the historic town of Lahaina and people desperately tried to escape burning homes and flames licking at cars in gridlocked traffic.

The 911 calls were released to The Associated Press in response to a public record request. They cover a period from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 as the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, whipped by powerful winds from a passing hurricane, bore down on the town.

At least 98 people were killed and more than 2,000 structures were destroyed, most of them homes, leveling a historic town that once served as the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and a port for whaling ships. Many drivers became trapped on Front Street, surrounded on three sides by black smoke and a wall of flames. They had moments to choose whether to stay or jump into the ocean as cars exploded and burning debris fell around them.

Hawaiian Electric, the state’s electric utility company, has acknowledged its power lines started a wildfire on Maui, but faulted county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene, only to have the flames rekindle nearby.

The county and the families of some victims have sued Hawaiian Electric, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.

The pleas for help came one right after another, people calling because they were stuck in cars on Front Street, trapped by fallen trees and power lines blocking evacuation routes or worried about loved ones who were home alone. Again and again, overwhelmed dispatchers apologized to callers but said there was no one available to send to their location, assuring them emergency responders were working to extinguish the fires.

Dispatchers were also fielding emergency calls from outside of Lahaina, including report of violent crimes and other wildfires burning in a different part of the island. They received more than 4,500 emergency calls and texts that day, according to the Maui Police Department, including hundreds of calls during the time span requested by The AP. Normally, Maui County dispatchers get about 1,600 calls a day.

“It was an extremely dynamic situation that day, in which our dispatchers adapted to the best of their abilities,” Maui Police Department spokesperson Alana Pico wrote in an email.

Roughly two-thirds of the known victims who died in the fire were 60 or older, according to a list from Maui County. The calls reflect the helplessness of the situation for those who needed help getting out quickly.

In one call at 3:31 p.m., a woman said her daughter already called about an 88-year-old man who was left behind in their house and she wanted emergency personnel to know the sliding doors were unlocked.

“He would literally have to be carried out,” she told the dispatcher. “I just had to leave him because I had the rest of my family in the car.”

A dispatcher said they would update the fire department.

Two minutes later, a woman called from the Hale Mahaolu Eono group senior residence. She was one of four people left at the facility without any cars as the flames pushed closer, she told the dispatcher.

“Are we supposed to get evacuated?” she asked the dispatcher, panic clear in her voice.

“OK ma’am, if you feel unsafe, listen to yourself and evacuate,” the dispatcher replied. No emergency vehicles were available to help, the dispatcher said, because all available units were fighting the fire.

As cinders rained around her, the woman tried to flag down people driving past to get a ride out while staying on the line with the dispatcher.

One car stopped but wouldn’t wait while she gathered her things. She eventually flagged down another passing woman. It wasn’t clear from the call what happened to the remaining people at the residence.

Multiple people died at the senior home, authorities would later learn.

Another large wildfire was burning elsewhere on Maui, spreading resources thin as calls for help poured in. As the disaster in Lahaina progressed, frustrations increased. One dispatcher briefly chastised a man when he called to report his elderly parents were stuck in their burning home at 4:56 p.m.

“Why did they not call us direct? They should have called us direct,” the dispatcher said, saying that would make it easier to find their location. She also said the man should have told them to leave the house sooner.

“Yes, we’ve been trying to tell them — my dad was trying to fight the fire,” the man said. “The last words he said is, ‘I love you. We’re not going to make it.’”

At times dispatchers also showed careful compassion, working to soothe terrified callers.

“My mom and my baby are still out there,” one sobbing caller told a 911 dispatcher at 4:44 p.m. “They got out of their car and they headed up the street.”

The dispatcher coaxed the frantic woman to provide the street name where she last saw her mother and child.

“We have officers over there, OK?” the dispatcher said.

Authorities redacted names and addresses from the recordings to avoid releasing personally identifying information.

Maui County’s communication chief Mahina Martin said the county released the tapes to comply with a legal request for public records.

“Reliving the tragedy causes unimaginable pain and grief for survivors, their families and the families of loved ones lost that chaotic and heartbreaking day,” Martin wrote in an email, “and our hearts go out to them.”

She later continued, “it is truly unfortunate that as people are beginning to heal they are faced with re-experiencing the horrific event over again as it replays on media.”

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The audio clips echo a refrain heard from many survivors: They were unable to escape, even by car, because of traffic and blocked roads.

One caller said cars were being routed into a gated parking lot and were forced to turn around. Another said they were routed onto a dirt road behind the Lahaina Civic Center, but also found their way blocked by a locked gate. A third caller told dispatchers they needed to open a road on a south side of town, warning that the blocked exit would result in people dying.

One woman told a dispatcher that she was on Front Street and saw a house on fire, but couldn’t advance.

“We’re caught in massive traffic and we’re covered in ashes and embers and there’s a lot of people honking and trying to get out of the road,” the caller said.

The dispatcher apologized and said firefighters were trying to get there.

“It’s just really scary,” the caller said.

At 5:25 p.m., more than two hours after the fire began consuming homes, it appeared some dispatchers still didn’t have a full understanding of what was happening in the city. One dispatcher told a caller who was stuck in traffic that emergency workers were busy “because Lahaina has a couple of house fires going on right now.”

“If you’re safe, you need to stay there. If you’re not safe, you need to find some way to get to the ocean,” she told the caller.

High winds wreaked havoc the night and early morning hours before the fire. One downed power line sparked a fire in dry grass near a Lahaina subdivision around 6:30 a.m.

Firefighters declared it contained a few hours later, but the flames rekindled some time between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and soon overtook the town.

Around that time, many had lost cellphone service. Power was also out across West Maui, rendering emergency warnings on social media or television stations largely futile. The island’s emergency siren system — another way authorities can communicate urgency in a time of danger — was never activated.

For some, emergency dispatchers were their only contact with the world beyond the burning town. Later even that connection was lost.

Just after midnight on Aug. 9, Maui County announced on Facebook that the 911 system was down in West Maui. Instead, the county wrote, people should call the Lahaina Police Department directly.

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