LAHAINA, Hawaii — 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 reports 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.