WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — Retired mailman and Vietnam veteran Thomas Leonard lived in the historic former capital of Hawaii for 44 years until this week, when a rapidly moving wildfire burned down his apartment, melted his Jeep and forced him to spend four terrifying hours hiding from the flames behind a seawall.
“I’ve got nothing left,” Leonard said Thursday as he sat on an inflatable mattress outside a shelter for those who fled the blaze that decimated the town of Lahaina. “I’m a disabled vet, so now I’m a homeless vet,” he added with a small laugh.
The fire that tore across the coastal Maui town and caught many by surprise has already claimed dozens of lives — a toll expected to climb — and burned more than 1,000 buildings. It has turned a centuries-old hamlet beloved by travelers and locals alike into a charred, desolate landscape.
The devastation has resonated worldwide in part because tourists from around the globe flock to Maui to enjoy its white sand beaches, including many who stop to visit the old whaling village and capital of the former Hawaiian kingdom. Thousands fled Maui after the fires rousted them from their resort hotels and sent them scrambling from their sun chairs on Tuesday. But for thousands of people who call Lahaina home, there is no flight to catch and no home to return to. They’ve simply lost everything.
On Front Street, Lahaina’s main thoroughfare, Deborah Leoffler lost a home that has been in her family since 1945. Five generations stayed there, starting with her grandfather, who was a Lahaina police sergeant. Her youngest son had been planning to move home from the mainland to live there.
She evacuated so quickly she left her debit cards on her nightstand and now can’t access her bank account.
“But I still have my family, and that’s what counts,” she said.
Myrna Ah Hee’s home is in one of the few subdivisions in Lahaina spared destruction. But she and her husband, Abraham, haven’t been able to find his brother, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who has been living in Lahaina’s homeless shelter.
The Ah Hees spent Thursday scouring evacuation shelters across the island from Lahaina to see if he might have made it out.
Her extended family was hit badly: Her parents lost their home, as did her son, one of her uncles and a cousin. Her son-in-law was staying in a house that had long been in her husband’s family, but that burned down too.
She said those born and raised in Lahaina like her and her husband have to “stand up and make it what it was.”
“Where do you begin?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s town we have to bring back — but also families, classmates, friends.”
Leonard, the retired mailman, said he didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke from his apartment on Front Street and went outside to investigate. He had been in an information vacuum all day after the power had gone out early Tuesday morning, leaving him and neighbors without electricity, internet and cellphone service. The county’s emergency sirens — which warn people of the need to evacuate for tsunamis and other natural disasters — didn’t sound.
He grabbed his wallet, keys and credit cards and jumped in his car to leave, only to find a traffic jam. He waited, in hopes the line of vehicles would move, until the cars ahead of him started exploding one by one.
“My Jeep had a soft top, and I knew it was going to go. And I just said, ‘I’m out of here,’” Leonard recalled.
The 74-year-old ran over to the seawall that shields the town from encroachment from the ocean, joining about 70 others. About 20 of them jumped in the water to get away from the flames. Leonard said he felt safer crouched down next the wall on the ocean side, where he could let the wind carry hot ash over him.
Even so, cinder seared holes in his shorts and shirt, and he suffered burns on his legs.
“There were flames coming and sparks everywhere,” he said.
One person at the seawall flashed S.O.S. out to the ocean, which Leonard said alerted the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard contacted Maui firefighters, who then escorted the group on foot through the flames to a supermarket parking lot at about 9:30 p.m.
A propane tank exploded down the block not long after they passed.
“It was just like, boom, a gigantic mushroom at that house,” he said.
As Gov. Josh Green put it in an interview with The Associated Press: “Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down.”
Leonard isn’t sure what he’ll do next. The pharmacy at the evacuation shelter has contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs to help him get his prescriptions. He’s thinking how he’ll have to contact his homeowner’s and car insurance providers. And get in touch with his friends and family. They don’t know where he is — but he’s registered with the Red Cross so they can find him.
Still, he doesn’t know if he will will go back to Lahaina, especially given how long it will probably take to rebuild.
“I have no idea where I’m going to go,” he said.