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Lahaina Family Describes an Impossible Escape From the Maui Wildfires

U.S.Lahaina Family Describes an Impossible Escape From the Maui Wildfires

The wind had never felt so fierce.

Folau Tone steadied himself as a gale whipped through his street in Lahaina. Trying to nail down the rattling tin roof on his family’s home, he gave up as fragments were stripped away.

In West Maui, power lines were crashing down, and the electricity was out across a large swath of the island. Outdoor furniture and debris were flung across yards.

Folau’s wife had already left for her job at a hotel, but their four children had stayed behind. It was Aug. 8, what would have been the first day of school. Classes were canceled because of the power outage.

The gusts did not deter his mother, Faaoso, who stood outside fussing over a pot of cassava root while another pot burbled with fish stew. She liked cooking in the open air and had long ago set up a makeshift kitchen with propane burners under a tent.

At 70, Faaoso enjoyed overseeing a home that bustled, happy to live with children and grandchildren over the years. Her husband, Maluifonua, 73, was retired, having suffered a back injury when a linen cart slipped while he was working at a resort.

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Folau and his family moved in seven years ago, joining his sister Salote, 39, and her son, Tony Takafua. The siblings helped pay the mortgage.

At about 2 p.m., Folau showered and was preparing to leave for his job as a bartender when he received word that the restaurant was not going to open. He figured that he and his kids would hole up for the day.

But smoke began to swirl outside their home, a white bungalow with blue trim. Neighbors came outside to peer up at the mountains, their shouts drowned out by the wind. Some headed for their cars.

Folau, 44, had evacuated under threat of fire before, and he told his children to pack a change of clothes. The smoke soon thickened and darkened the sky. Folau found his footsteps quickening, his voice growing urgent.

His daughter Liliana, 14, jumped into the front seat of their silver truck, a Nissan Titan. Siosiua, 9, and Auralia, 5, crawled in the back seat. So did their 2-year-old brother, Keuli, and Nala, their Labrador mix.

Salote and Tony, 7, hopped into the white Honda Civic that she had recently purchased. Her parents climbed in the back. The plan was to follow Folau and meet at his wife’s hotel.

Before leaving, Folau grabbed the two pots of food his mother had made and rushed to place them in the trunk of Salote’s car. It would be nice to show up with a meal if there was no working electricity.

Maluifonua and Faaoso Tone had once been farmers in Tonga where they grew taro and breadfruit and raised horses, cows and goats. They were often seen side by side in the field, an unusually inseparable pair.

In 1995, the couple planned to move to San Francisco to join a family member whose stories had made them dream of an American life. On the way, they stopped to visit Faaoso’s brother on Maui and decided to stay for good because the island reminded them of home. They had four children at the time and would soon adopt a fifth.

Maluifonua took a job as a dishwasher at a tavern called the Rusty Harpoon, working so late that he would miss the last bus and have to walk the four miles home.

He and his wife found comfort in the Polynesian community and were active in the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They attended socials and barbecues and spent afternoons at the congregation’s farm, tending to rows of yam plants and banana trees.

Maluifonua was a natural leader, and friends requested that he coordinate the kitchen at weddings and parties where it was not unusual to welcome a few hundred people. Faaoso was quieter, more comfortable looking after the household. Many looked forward to her version of lu pulu, which involved steaming corned beef or lamb with coconut milk in taro leaves.

The couple often watched over the children of relatives or neighbors, offering relief to numerous working parents. “They never complained about people bringing their kids, they were always willing,” Folau said.

Their modest house was near the ocean on a street lush with plumeria and coconut trees, and it became a landing place for relatives who had just moved to Maui.

Folau was their middle child and, after his older brother moved to Utah, the only son on the island. He had been a shy 15-year-old when he left Tonga and enrolled at Lahainaluna High School. There, he excelled at math and considered going to college.

But Folau remembered watching his older sister contributing her McDonald’s paychecks to the house. He thought it best to join the work force and help with his parents’ bills.

Over the years, Folau juggled jobs as a dishwasher, cook and server. He bartended, worked security, greeted travelers at zip-line tours.

It was not a life of regret. He felt a solemn sense of responsibility for the family.

Inside his truck, Folau did not see the fire, but could feel the encroaching heat as he gripped the steering wheel. He started down Kuhua Street. Salote followed. The neighborhood was shrouded in gray, and wind was hurling embers, leaves and dirt in the air.

A fallen mango tree blocked access to the main thoroughfare that could get them out of the area. Vehicles were changing direction, jamming the road. Folau turned onto Aki Street, but drivers motioned that there was no outlet there, either. He turned back to Kuhua Street. Cars were trying to maneuver around one another but getting nowhere. He was trapped.

“Dad, get us out of here!” Liliana, his daughter, begged.

Alongside the street ran a metal fence. Another truck began ramming into it, futilely trying to break it down. Finally, the driver got out and started running, leaving his vehicle behind.

Folau scanned for another means of escape. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking of anything — just feeling that the kids were there and just trying to get them somewhere safe,” he said.

He found himself back by the fallen mango tree. Maybe, Folau thought, he could wedge his truck against the side of the fence, force his wheels over the branches and break through to the other side.

Nearby homes began to ignite. The inside of Folau’s truck grew hotter. He could barely see through the windshield. His children clung to one another and screamed.

“I just heard my kids crying. And then I just went for it.”

He gunned the engine. His sister Salote, he hoped, was close behind.

Salote Tone had a bold personality that some could find brash. But she tried not to spend time worrying about what people thought of her. She considered herself a work in progress and had empathy for anyone with a personal struggle.

“She could be sassy in people’s eyes, but if you got to know her, she was really humble,” her friend Fipe Fononga, 41, said. “She was my ride or die. If I’m in trouble or need help, she was there.”

Salote helped Fipe land a job at a rental car agency. When Fipe had difficulty affording rent, Salote invited her to live with the family, sharing her bedroom.

“She never judged people, she tried to offer inspiration,” said her friend Tiffany Tevaga, who wrestled with alcoholism for years and spent time in prison for assault. After Tiffany turned things around and began a home business braiding hair, Salote was her right hand, booking appointments and posting advertisements.

“Oh, she was so proud of me,” Tiffany, 35, said. “I like to say I’m the muscle — and Lote was the heart.”

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Salote had been a manager at Cheeseburger in Paradise, a well-known hangout, but eventually managed vacation-home rentals.

She loved to be social, staying out until sunrise with her girlfriends — avoiding venues where she might find herself under the watchful eye of her big brother Folau.

When her son was born, Salote’s world grew smaller and more focused. Tony became her shadow, her “Boobear” and “lil mini,” and she was unabashed in her affection for him.

“I love you to the end of me, and I can never thank you enough for being my lifesaver,” she wrote in April on her Facebook page.

The two spent days at the beach where Tony jumped off cliffs. He had a passion for football and video games, and liked riding electric bikes around the neighborhood with his cousins. He smiled whenever posing in a ta’ovala, his traditional Tongan dress, and often went to church with his grandparents. More than once, Tony raised money for children with heart problems, adding what he had earned from the tooth fairy and chores around the house.

During the first weekend of August, he and his mother visited Oahu where Tiffany was offering free braiding for a lower-income community. Salote joined in, brushing people’s hair while her son clung to her side. They returned to Maui on the night of Aug. 7, although they had nearly missed their flight while scrambling to find Tony new football cleats.

He was starting second grade at Princess Nahienaena Elementary School the next day.

As flames tore through the heart of Lahaina, those elsewhere on Maui had little immediate information.

Folau’s wife, Sabrina, was working the front desk at the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas about four miles away, and trying to calm guests complaining about the power outage. Smoke was twisting through the sky outside.

Sabrina, 44, began receiving texts from her eldest, Liliana. But cell service was shoddy, and each message was one word.

“mom”

“please”

“answer”

Sabrina took a break to drive to Folau’s restaurant and was relieved he had not shown up. It meant he was very likely with their children.

Finally, around 5 p.m., her husband appeared in the lobby, his face ashen. Guests were around, so he quietly told her to walk outside.

There she saw that the front and sides of his truck were scraped and battered. An electrical wire was tangled underneath. Liliana grabbed her and cried. Her other children and the dog were safe inside the truck.

An administrator at the hotel would later recall the scene as one of the first clues that something was terribly wrong in Lahaina.

Folau was anxious to retrace his steps to search for his sister’s car, but the roads were impassable. Calls and texts went unanswered. Across the island, thousands had been displaced and separated. Sabrina’s manager offered the family a hotel room for the night.

By morning, Folau had still not heard from his parents or Salote. The next day, he found a way to get into the burn area with his brother-in-law and a friend.

They saw a valley of cinders and burned dreams. Most of the homes were ash and rubble, some marked only by concrete steps to nowhere. Folau’s own home had disappeared into dust, nothing left to be saved.

Cars with melted tires dotted the street, their metal frames nearly unrecognizable.

But one had a bent hood as if it had slammed into something. It also held a devastating detail: two scorched metal pots.

It has been more than a month since the fire, and dozens of victims have yet to be identified. The authorities count the total lives lost at 115, but many residents are convinced there are more. And there are still 66 names on a list of the missing.

Forensic experts and search teams combed through the rubble for weeks looking for any semblance of human remains. Families who have provided their DNA still wait for closure.

Folau knew before the officials: Faaoso, Maluifonua, Salote and Tony had died in their car. Three generations taken by flames they could not outrun. Tony would have celebrated his eighth birthday next month, the youngest victim to be identified so far.

Survivors have deep trauma and complicated mental scars. There are those who cannot speak of what they saw. And plans to restart their lives are outlined in grief.

Folau and his family are staying at a hotel as they figure out what comes next. Wherever they land, the household will feel incomplete.

Siosiua, his 9-year-old, has not yet come up with a good answer when other kids innocently ask, “Where is Tony?”

Folau is grateful to be there for his son in these moments after spending so much of his life working. It has been good to focus on fatherhood.

Like many, he is struggling with the weight of unwarranted guilt. Why his car made it out but his sister’s did not. Whether he could have swung around and made sure they pulled through.

His siblings and friends assure him that he is not to blame. His own children speak of his heroism. The way they see it, Folau was their protector, a father fueled by love and desperation racing them out of a terrifying blaze.

And his wife knows the unbearable alternative: “If he had gone back, we would have lost them all.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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