By Allan Stein
Christy Albinson still has nightmares. The nightmares of children are the worst, she says, nearly a month after the tragic Lahaina wildfire in West Maui.
“I’ve been traumatized. My dreams have been pretty whacko. They’re horrible—children buried in the sand. I’m spooked,” Ms. Albinson, 47, said.
And when the panic attacks strike without warning, it’s all she can do to remain calm.
Sometimes, the question crosses her mind: Why did she survive when so many others died?
It’s not so much survivor’s guilt as it is a simmering anger—a feeling that the outcome could have been different for so many if emergency management officials had responded differently.
All Ms. Albinson knows is that people who stayed in their vehicles in traffic perished in the smoke and flames.
“They were driving to their deaths, basically. I acknowledged I was in control of my choices and needed to not listen to the police,” Ms. Albinson told The Epoch Times.
“I recognized I would have to go around the barriers and do what it took because this was my life. I have grandchildren; I needed to get to my family.”
Several other Lahaina residents and workers told The Epoch Times that they survived only by driving around or through the police roadblocks, acknowledging the police were just “following orders.”
“Common sense,” said Grale, a West Maui resident who was working at a gated community in Lahaina on the day of the fire.
“Me? I’m in panic mode. I’m getting the heck out of here. Survival mode. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how many cars on Front Street just burned.”
The Lahaina fire burned 2,170 acres and more than 2,000 homes and buildings in this historic coastal community with a population of 13,120.
The scenic oceanside Front Street serves as the town’s main street and connector to the Lahaina highway bypass to and from the community.
Officials believe the first fire began in the brush around Lahaina after midnight on Aug. 8, causing sporadic power outages and two other large fires inland.
By 10 a.m., officials had announced the Lahaina fire was 100 percent contained despite limited capacity to pump water. The fire soon reignited in the uplands overlooking the town in the early afternoon, driven by 80 mph winds that forced hot embers into Lahaina’s more densely populated areas.
In response, local police set up roadblocks along the northbound highway that residents say created massive choke points for people trying to escape.
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Shutterstock)
Officials reported 100 people or more ran into the ocean as the air grew thick with black smoke and swirling ash. Many stayed in the water for hours until help arrived.
On Aug. 24, Maui County officials filed a lawsuit accusing the power company, Hawaiian Electric, of “gross negligence” by failing to de-energize power lines that would have prevented the wildfire, and $5.5 billion in physical damage and catastrophic loss of life.
The power company claimed in rebuttal that it cut the electricity to the lines for approximately six hours when the second deadly fire erupted in Lahaina.
Ms. Albinson said she awoke the morning of Aug. 8 with a peculiar sense that something was wrong that day—but what, exactly, she couldn’t say.
“I just had an eerie feeling that something was off before I went to work. I filled my car with gas and got extra food. I just wasn’t sure.”
Ms. Albinson had been working the same job for 10 years, cleaning condominiums and bed-and-breakfasts in the old Lahaina surfing community of Puamana.
She called her boss at 7:30 a.m., who told her the power was off and that driving to work would take longer than usual due to the smaller fire and traffic on Front Street, a main road through the town.
Ninety minutes later, Ms. Albinson arrived at work, having negotiated a “crazy line of traffic.”
She remembered how the wind seemed to cascade down the mountainside from the north as Hurricane Dora passed hundreds of miles off the southern coastline.
“It was almost like a swirling wind. It was just crazy—like nothing I’d ever seen,” Ms. Albinson said.
“That wind was so nuts. You had to protect your head if you got out of your car. Things were flying in our eyes.”
Around 3:30 p.m., the situation worsened. Ms. Albinson and a coworker left work together and followed each other home in separate vehicles.
“We hoped to get to the highway and jaunt to the next bypass. Instead, we were blocked off by police and traffic cones.”
Ms. Albinson recalled telling a friend on the phone as she sat in heavy traffic on Front Street: “I think I’m in the apocalypse.”
She wondered why police were blocking the exits and stopping cars, turning them back, yet allowing other vehicles into the town as things were in “such chaos.”
Ms. Albinson said she then pulled off the road at the corner of Lahainaluna and Front Street and began waving at a police officer sitting in his cruiser to ask for instructions.
“He would not look at me. He would not turn his head. He just kept facing his computer and would not acknowledge me asking for assistance,” Ms. Albinson said.
“I couldn’t quite understand why the cops would block everybody in unless it were for our safety.”
All around, the debris flew past her car in the gale-force winds. A large tree branch struck her windshield at one point, but luckily, the glass didn’t break.
“There was no question in my mind people would be stuck in traffic. I didn’t know what it meant at the time.”
Ms. Albinson said she watched her friend turn left to head south as she veered right to find the exit blocked by police. Quickly, she made a “20-point turn” and headed back to Puamana.
Along the way, she saw her boss sitting in her car near an old banyan tree.
“I’m going home,” her boss said.
Ms. Albinson said she began to plead with her employer not to go back to the house, sensing it wasn’t safe.
“She drove off anyway. I didn’t hear anything from her for 24 hours. She spent the night seeking safety in the ocean.”
With powerful winds buffeting her vehicle, Ms. Albinson knew she had to get out of Lahaina “at all costs.”
“I’ll break the police barrier if I have to,” said Ms. Albinson, who managed to find an unguarded exit to Route 30 away from Lahaina—and home.
That night she told her daughter, Shelby Thomson, 27, “There’s going to be thousands of dead people.”
“Mom, don’t say that,” her daughter said.
But Ms. Albinson said she knew there were too many people still trapped in the town for it to be otherwise.
Maui County officials announced at the end of August that 100 percent of the town had been searched for human remains. They put the death toll at 115, with hundreds still missing.
“Call it divine intervention. We’ve been unpacking it,” said Ms. Thomson, realizing how close her mom had come to “not getting out” alive.
“Another half hour and she would’ve been blocked in.”
‘Lot of Confusion’
“We’re just grateful to be alive,” said Michelle, whose husband, Ed, lost all his tools for his contracting business in the Lahaina fire.
Although the couple’s home burned in the fire, they were able to save their dogs and 30 chickens.
The Waiola Church is engulfed in flames in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 8, 2023. A volunteer makes damage assessment of burned buildings in the aftermath of the wildfire on Aug. 12, 2023. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via A, Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)
Michelle attributes the deadly fire to bad decisions by local officials and “a lot of miscommunication. A lot of confusion.”
Her husband recalled how bad the situation was on Front Street as panic-stricken motorists jammed the roadway.
“All of a sudden, flames and big embers were coming over the buildings right next to us,” Ed told The Epoch Times. “It was raining—snowing embers. It was pretty thick. It was landing on the grass, starting tiny fires, and going out. That freaked everybody out.”
Ed said he was astonished at how one lane of northbound traffic on Front Street quickly swelled into six lanes of mayhem, all moving in the same direction.
“They were on the sidewalks—they were everywhere. You couldn’t even get out of your vehicle. They were beside you, so close to you. You couldn’t even open your doors.”
“My wife kept saying over the phone, ‘You’ve got to get out of there, even if you have to run away from the vehicle. Just go.'”
Ed then noticed two friends were in vehicles behind him who would later jump into the ocean to save their lives.
Ed’s chance to escape came when a vehicle opened a space to his right on Front Street.
“I just hit the gas and filled his spot,” Ed said, throwing caution aside as he drove onto the sidewalk and grass in front of homes, edging his way further to the right to get out of traffic.
Ed said he just kept moving forward until he finally reached a blocked side street and drove around the police barricade.
Cars destroyed by wildfire line remain Front Street in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
“You can’t go that way!” an officer shouted, but Ed simply responded, “Well, I’m going anyway.”
He said getting onto the highway was “completely doable,” and feels, in retrospect, that defying the authorities probably saved his life.
Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier and Mayor Richard Bissen have yet to return a phone call and email from The Epoch Times seeking comment for this article.
The Epoch Times could not immediately reach interim Maui County Emergency Management (MEMA) Administrator Darryl Oliveira for comment.
On Aug. 28, Mr. Oliveira replaced former MEMA administrator Herman Andaya, who resigned earlier this month, citing “health reasons.”
Mr. Andaya became embroiled in controversy over his decision not to sound Maui County’s all-hazard warning sirens that would have alerted residents to the wildfires.
While MEMA routinely tests the sirens on the first day of each month, the agency said it canceled the scheduled Sept. 1 system check out of sympathy and respect for the fire victims.
Grale, a Lahaina resident, said she was getting ready to go to work in Lahaina when her grandson called her at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, asking if she was OK due to the first fire.
Everything is fine, she told him. “But when I went down to Lahaina, as soon as I got to the pull-off to Puamana, it was all blocked off.”
Grale found another route but the fire had spread onto Lahainaluna Road. Her cell phone had also stopped working.
She eventually made it to work by doubling back onto Front Street navigating the high winds and fallen trees.
“As the day went on, it kept getting worse and worse,” Grale told The Epoch Times.
At around 3:30 p.m., she and a coworker decided to leave for their personal safety.
“Thank God we didn’t stay” at the boss’s condo, Grale said. “It ended up burning down.”
As they continued driving, they encountered multiple police barricades at exits to the main highway out of Lahaina.
“We ended up turning around. I followed my friend; she was ahead of me. We went back to Front Street. Every street, you couldn’t get through,” Grale said.
The streets that had downed electrical lines were the “scary ones,” she said.
Downed power lines next to a building destroyed by the wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 11, 2023. A person walks down Front Street in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 10, 2023. (Moses Slovatizki/AFP via Getty Images, Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
“You don’t want to get electrocuted. We still weren’t getting nervous yet, but wondered why there were so many cars and nobody was trying to get out of their vehicles. We realized you couldn’t.”
“We never would have thought it would come down that fast. Police blocked certain roads because the power lines were down,” Grale said.
Grale remembered seeing smoke so thick it was “insane.”
When she and her coworker became separated in traffic, she began thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, how are we all getting out of here? There were so many people trying to follow each other.
“So I turned around again. A man in a truck ahead of me just went through the traffic cones and knocked them over. I followed him. That’s how we ended up getting out.”
“You were in survival mode. We were the only two on the highway. I thought, “Where is everybody?”
No ‘Peace In Her Heart’
“We had protocols,” Ms. Albinson said. “No one ever thought it would happen on their watch. I don’t know what started these fires. I know there was massive negligence,” and that people should be held accountable.
“This isn’t like out of the blue where we had a fire. People went to council meetings for years regarding fires and what to do.”
She’s continually haunted by nightmares of children in the Lahaina fire, and has yet to make “peace in her heart,” knowing so many young lives were lost.
Ms. Albinson can’t grasp that hundreds–if not thousands–of children may be dead.
“It’s just an impossibility,” she said.
She doubts she’ll ever set foot again in Lahaina again after so much death and devastation.
“Last night, I went to a prayer circle, and people said, ‘Did you lose anything? Did you lose friends? Did I lose my job?’
Ms. Albinson answered “Yes,” to all those questions, yet felt blessed, and even luckier to be alive.