The victims and survivors of Maui’s wildfires have been left with ‘napalm-like’ injuries, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Vietnam war, according to rescue teams now tasked with combing through the incinerated rubble of Lahaina.
The fire in Maui is the worst natural disaster to have hit Hawaii since a tsunami killed 61 people in 1960. If the death toll continues to rise, as it is expected, it will surpass that grim record to become the deadliest.
It is also on pace to become the deadliest wildfire in recent US history. Over the last 100 years, only the Camp fire in California claimed more lives than have been counted so far, with 68 victims in total.
One thousand people remain unaccounted for in Maui after Tuesday’s catastrophic fire that has so far claimed 55. The death toll is expected to rise as search teams go through homes, or what is left of them, looking for victims.
Michael Havoc Thomas, a military veteran who owns and operates HAVOC, a private rescue and training company in Hawaii, gave a harrowing description of the reality of the devastation.
‘The news will not be able to show you the real survivors or the real victims. It’s very WW2 flamethrowers and Vietnam napalm like. That is not an exaggeration.’
Search and Rescue Soldiers and Airmen attached to Hawaii National Guards CERF-P unit assisted Maui County and State officials in the search and recovery efforts of Lahaina, August 10, 2023
A young man walks through the rubble of Lahaina on August 10. Search and rescue teams say it is like ‘WW2’ or as if residents have been exposed to napalm
Wildfire wreckage is shown Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town
Human remains detection dog Cory is in Maui with handler Su to help teams look for the victims
He said he had debriefed with a team leader whose tactical gear smelled like ‘burning flesh’.
‘When I hugged him I smelled him. Honestly, I can only compare it to experiences from the military, never had to fight a fire before so I can only tell you it’s like doing a BDA after spooky levels an objective.
‘The smells of burning metal and flesh on the gear he was carrying from dragging people out of some of the rubble.
‘Majority is too hot to touch. His boots and other rubber equipment were melted and unserviceable,’ he said.
‘The tears and smeared residue of dirt on his face tell a story he hasn’t been able to comprehend yet.’
Wildfire wreckage is shown Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from deadly wildfires that wiped out a historic town
In this image obtained from the US Department of Defense, Honolulu Fire Department vehicles and personnel are secured onto a C-17 Globemaster III on August 10, 2023, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii. A team comprised of firefighters, rescue specialists and incident management personnel, and disaster-relief cargo deployed to aid communities impacted by several wildfires
In this image obtained from the US Department of Defense, Staff Sgt. Trevor Connors loads supplies onto a C-17 Globemaster III on August 10, 2023, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii
A view of the charred remains after wildfires engulfed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, U.S. August 9, 2023
President Biden and Kamala Harris will not travel immediately to Maui because they do not want to distract from the ongoing rescue effort, Vice President Harris said today.
The fire began on Tuesday, spreading quickly and ferociously. While the exact cause of it remains unclear, high winds, dry conditions and low humidity exacerbated the flames fatally.
Fifty-five people have been confirmed dead already and 1,000 remain missing three days on from the blaze, which incinerated the entire town of Lahaina.
The governor of Hawaii and mayor of Maui County say they have received generous help from Biden so far – but that they are still waiting for FEMA to arrive with hazmat crews who can begin searching buildings for bodies.
As she left Washington DC today, Vice President Harris told reporters that she and Biden do not want to hinder that effort.
As she left Washington DC today, Vice President Harris told reporters that she and Biden do not want to hinder that effort or be a ‘distraction’ in Hawaii
‘We don’t want to distract from the resources that need to go in to the victims of this tragedy, and of course the needs of the first responders have to be able to focus on that issue and not worry about focusing on us (because) we’re there,’ she said as she boarded Air Force Two for Chicago.
On Thursday, cavalry was flown in from the military base in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu.
A massive search and rescue mission is now underway and cadaver dogs have also been brought in to help search for bodies among the ruins. In an interview this morning, the Mayor of Maui County said the bodies found so far have all been discovered in the street, outside properties. Search teams have not yet begun pulling bodies from homes and businesses.
An unknown number of people are also thought to have perished in their cars while trying to escape the hellish flames.
When the fire torched Lahaina, cell phone towers were incinerated along with every other structure.
It means that the town remains without phone service, and there is no internet, water, or power either and, crucially, that rescue teams cannot get in to help.
‘We as a local nonprofit are not able to even access anything west of Maalaea. West Maui is completely cut off from communication and power. That’s very fluid, but that’s sort of what we’re seeing at a hyperlocal level,’ Lauren Henrie for Maui Rescue Mission told CNN.
A view of damage cause by wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. The entire town of Lahaina on the west side of Maui remains cut off with no power, water, internet or phone service
Residents of Lahaina survey the damage on Friday, August 11, three days after a catastrophic wildfire ripped through the town
A group of desperate Lahaina residents cling to a piece of plywood in the ocean on Tuesday after jumping into the water to escape the hellish flames that have so far killed 55 people
A woman clings desperately onto the sea wall as others struggle against the current. A man with a backpack struggles against the choppy ocean waves
‘I think that number could go up. According to those doing the recovery – our police, Coast Guard and National Guard, that was the number they found of people outside of the buildings. We have not yet searched the interior of the buildings. We’re waiting for FEMA to help with that search.
‘They are equipped to handle the hazmat conditions of the buildings that have been burned,’ Mayor Richard Bissen told the TODAY show.
The West side of the island remains without power, water and communications.
‘They have no internet, no cell phone. That’s the challenge. We’ve been sending crews out with water….but our focus is on finding any missing persons. We want to give people information.’
Mayor Bissen added that he ‘couldn’t say’ whether the warning system had worked efficiently.
‘This was an impossible situation. The winds that hit us on that side of the island, the gusts were up to 80mph. Some sustained up to 45 and 60 mph. Everything happened so quickly.
‘I can’t comment on whether or not the sirens sounded or not but the fires came up so quickly and spread so fast. ‘
The footage shows desperate residents of Lahaina, one of the oldest, most historic towns on Maui, clinging on to the ocean wall for their life as brutal winds lashed them with sea water and embers from the fires flew overhead.
Some gathered together to cling on to a large piece of plyboard.
They were forced to wait in the ocean, bobbing helplessly, until they were rescued by the Coast Guard. In total, 50 people were rescued from the ocean in Lahaina.
As devastating new images and videos of the immediate aftermath of the fire continue to emerge, the families of those still unaccounted for are pleading for help.
Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that killed at least 55 people and wiped out a historic town. Instead, officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations — but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain to alert people to various natural disasters and other threats.
But many survivors said that they didn’t hear any sirens or receive a warning that gave them enough time to prepare and only realized they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby. The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people.
Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Floyd Mayweather are assisting at local shelters.
Oprah was spotted handing out diapers, pillows, sheets and toiletries from Costco.
‘It’s overwhelming… but I’m really pleased to have so many people supporting… bringing what they can and doing what they can.’
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen says he anticipates the death toll to rise as search teams begin pulling bodies from the interior of buildings
Hawaii’s ‘unprecedented’ wildfires razed a historic town and killed dozens of people after a hurricane hundreds of miles from the islands combined with dry conditions
Oprah Winfrey hands out supplies at a shelter in Maui on Thursday. The billionaire owns 2,000 acres of land on Maui
Oprah said she was ‘overwhelmed’ but eager to help. She has been criticized by some locals for buying up huge swathes of land on the island
‘I came earlier just to see what people needed then went shopping because often, you know, you make donations of clothes or whatever and it’s not really what people need. So I actually went to Walmart and Costco and got pillows, shampoo, diapers, sheets, pillowcases.’
Among those missing is Timm ‘TK’ Williams Sr., a disabled veteran who told his family he had escaped the fire and was on his way to a shelter on Wednesday.
His relatives told CNN: ‘He was attempting to make it to a shelter, but all of the roads were blocked. He would not be able to run or move quickly if needed to.’
On Thursday evening, Governor Josh Green said that all communications with the western part of Maui remained down, and that the emergency services were only able to communicate using satellite phones.
Talley said they were desperately hoping he made it to a shelter, and was simply unable to let them know he was safe. But, she added, they were fearing the worst.
‘It has been difficult,’ she said. ‘Every minute that goes by, is another minute that he could be hurt (or) in danger.’
Chelsey Vierra said Thursday that she didn’t know if her great-grandmother, Louise Abihai, managed to escape her senior living facility, which witnesses saw erupt in flames.
‘She doesn’t have a phone. She’s 97 years old,’ Vierra said. ‘She can walk. She is strong.’
Relatives were monitoring shelter lists and calling the hospital. ‘We don’t know who to ask about where she went,’ said Vierra, who fled the flames.
The ruins of Lahaina are seen on Thursday after a wildfire ravaged the historic town
A man surveys the damage and films the devastation on his phone on Thursday
Smoke from the fires rises above Lahaina on Thursday
People can be seen on Thursday wandering the ruins of Lahaina, which was devastated in wildfires overnight on Tuesday and into Wednesday
Asked on Thursday evening for the number of dead, Green said: ‘Honestly, we don’t know. And here’s the challenge: there’s no power, no internet, no phone, no radio. You compound some of that. So when we’re speaking to our officers, we need them to get a sat phone. There’s around 1,000 missing.
‘It doesn’t mean that many have passed – I’m not saying that at all – but because we can’t contact them we can’t know.’
Green said that cadaver dogs were being brought in from California and Washington to assist the search.
‘We have a family assistance center set up, so anyone missing anyone at all, people can go there and give their details,’ he said.
‘If we can reunify people we will, and give notifications if we need to.’
Green said the destruction in the historic town of Lahaina, which was largely razed to the ground, was barely believable.
Hawaii is experiencing a drought, which provided ample fuel for the blaze: tailwinds from Hurricane Dora created gusts of up to 60mph, meaning there was little warning for many as the fire roared up to their doors.
‘It’s a heartbreaking day, without a doubt,’ said Green.
‘What we have seen today is catastrophic.
‘All of us will have a loved one here on Maui that lost a house, that lost a friend. ‘
Green urged those living on Maui and other islands to open their doors to take in those who had lost their homes, asking hotels to also assist in providing 2,000 rooms.
‘If you have additional space, if you have capacity to take someone in, please do,’ said Green.
‘Please take these people into your lives.’
He said that the recovery process would be long, slow and painful, but thanked the federal agencies for their swift response. He said the damage would be in the billions, but it was too soon to worry about buildings when people were still missing.
‘It will be in the billions of dollars, without a doubt,’ he said.
‘But first we have to focus on lives lost. It will take time. Many years to rebuild Lahaina.
‘When you see the full extent it will shock you.’
Green said the devastation, pictured on Thursday, was the worst in Hawaii’s state history
An aerial image of Lahaina, taken on Thursday. People fled to the sea and were drowned
Charred wreckage from a home in Lahaina is seen on Wednesday
Downed power cables made evacuations perilous, officials said
An eerie image from Thursday shows the smoldering ruins of the town of Lahaina
A boat is left adrift with the port and dock destroyed in Lahaina
He described the devastation as unprecedented, saying Hawaii had not experienced anything like it since it became the 50th state in 1959.
‘We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city before. We have had wildfires, but not in urban space. I think we’re seeing this for the first time in many different parts of the world.’
He said it was what happens when ‘global warming combines with drought.’
John Pelletier, chief of Maui police, said his officers were not equipped to go building-to-building in an unsafe environment searching for bodies, and stressed the job needed to be done sensitively.
‘We don’t normally go into buildings and pull out bodies. We need to do it slow and methodical, so we respect everything and bring people to the resting place the right way.’
Pressed on the death toll, he said: ‘It’s 53, it is rising. I don’t know what the final number will be.
‘It’s incredible. And it’s going to be devastating.’
Pelletier said the community was coming together, describing them as ‘Maui Strong’.
‘We have a scar on the face of Maui that will be here for a very long time. We know scars heal, but they always remain. We need patience, prayers, and perseverance.’
Jeff Hickman, the public affairs director for the Hawaii Department of Defense, said there were 30 burns victims, three of them seriously injured.
‘We’re going to have to go building by building, block by block, trying to find bodies,’ he said.
Then there will be an initial clean up, and then residents will be allowed to return.
‘It’s going to be a long process.’
He said they were trying to ‘get the visitors out and take care of the residents.’
Burnt-out cars are seen on Wednesday in Lahaina
Destroyed sections of Lahaina are pictured on Wednesday
A man walks through the smoldering ruins of Lahaina on Wednesday
Burnt out cars are seen after the fires ravaged parts of Maui
The cause of the wildfire remains unknown.
The National Weather Service said dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity fueled them.
Green said it was likely to prove a worse natural disaster than the tsunami of May 1960, sparked by an earthquake in Chile.
That tragedy left 61 people dead.
Hawaii is not immune to wildfires: in 2018, a total of 30,000 acres burnt, with flames fanned by Hurricane Lane.
This time, strong winds were caused by Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the islands.
Wildfires occur every year in Hawaii, according to Thomas Smith, an environmental geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science – but this year’s fires are burning faster and bigger than usual.
A Hawaii Army National Guard member looks out the window as a CH47 Chinook performs an aerial water bucket drop on the Island of Maui on Wednesday
People watch the wildfires ripping through Lahaina on Tuesday
Much of Lahaina has been burnt to the ground in the fires that blazed overnight on Tuesday
The fire spread quickly through tinderbox-dry grass and rapidly engulfed the wooden houses of Lahaina
Locals are seen walking through Lahaina on Wednesday, the morning after the fire
People gather while waiting for flights at the Kahului Airport on Wednesday
Crowds of people wait to board their flight from Kahului Airport on Wednesday
Smoke billows near Lahaina as wildfires driven by high winds destroy a large part of the historic town of Lahaina
Though at least 16 roads were closed, the airport was operating fully, he said.
Most of the roughly 400 evacuees at the War Memorial shelter on Thursday morning had arrived in shock, with an ’empty look,’ said Dr. Gerald Tariao Montano, a pediatrician who volunteered to work a six-hour shift on Wednesday night.
‘Some haven’t fully grasped that they lost everything,’ he said.
He pleaded for donations of clothes, supplies, food, baby formula and diapers.
The fate of some of Lahaina’s cultural treasures remains unclear.
The historic 60-foot-tall banyan tree marking the spot where Hawaiian King Kamehameha III’s 19th-century palace stood was still standing, though some of its boughs appeared charred, according to a Reuters witness.
Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for Hawaii, allowing affected individuals and business owners to apply for federal housing and economic recovery grants, the White House said in a statement.
The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on on Tuesday