Loved ones are frantically looking for residents of Hale Mahaolu Eono who remain unaccounted for.
Keshia Alakai was home in Pearl City with her family on Saturday afternoon when Honolulu police officers knocked on the door to deliver terrible news: her 79-year-old grandfather had died in the fire in Lahaina.
Alakai had been anxiously making calls and searching online for days, trying to find any clue about what had happened to Buddy J. Jantoc, a beloved local musician whose warmth and generosity had earned him the nickname “Mr. Aloha.”
Until his death was confirmed Saturday, Jantoc was one of several residents missing from Hale Mahaolu Eono, a 34-unit senior housing complex that was completely destroyed in the fire.
The ruins were still hot Thursday, but no emergency personnel could be seen. A folded up wheelchair, some ovens, and a stationary exercise bike stood in the rubble littered with porcelain cups and kitchen wares.
The families of Louise Abihai, Virgie Dofa, June Anbe and Alfie Rawlings, are still desperately searching for information about what might have happened to their loved ones — and whether any effort was made to evacuate the missing seniors, who range in age from 78 to 97 and would have had little chance of escaping the flames without assistance.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Alakai said of the loss of her grandfather. “I just want answers on what happened and we probably won’t get it.”
Hale Mahaolu, the nonprofit that manages the residence — along with two family housing complexes in Lahaina and 14 others across Maui County — did not respond to multiple requests for comment. They have also been largely unresponsive to the families of missing kupuna.
“Hale Mahaolu isn’t helping us,” said Abihai’s great-granddaughter, Kailani Amine. “They may be looking for them themselves, but that hasn’t been shown to the families.”
Instead, Abihai’s family and others have been posting on social media, reaching out to friends on the ground and visiting every known evacuation center and hotel on the island — even though they are being told by hotels that it’s not possible to share a list of the evacuees they are housing for privacy reasons.
“The whole family are just trying to come to terms with him not being found,” Rawlings’ daughter, Shirley Mcpherson, said in a Facebook message. “The not knowing is killing us.”
Little Warning Or Help
Hale Mahaolu Eono, a federally subsidized complex for seniors with low and moderate incomes, was built in the late-1990s and managed by a Maui-based nonprofit.
It had 34 one-bedroom apartments, along with an apartment for an on-site manager, according to its website. The property also housed a senior day care facility.
Because it was not an assisted living facility, it didn’t have the same responsibility for evacuating residents as a nursing home would have had. But seniors are one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to fires and natural disasters and the nonprofit had arranged evacuations during previous natural disasters, family members said.
The last time June Anbe’s family heard from her was 7:46 a.m. Tuesday when a brush fire was burning in the area.
“I try call your mom to tell her we have to evacuate from here, I think. I don’t know what time,” Anbe said in a voicemail to her niece. “They going take us someplace else. OK? Bye, Terri.”
Two hours later, Maui County declared the fire to be contained. That appears to be the end of any formal efforts to evacuate the complex.
In one of the only communications between Hale Mahaolu staff and families searching for loved ones, a housing manager identified only as “Sherri” in a text thread shared with Civil Beat said she had notified residents in the morning that they might need to evacuate. But after the county gave the all-clear, there was nothing that needed to be done, she said in the text.
Then later that day, the fire reignited and quickly spread.
“Unfortunately the evacuation happened so fast that I was not able to get back to the property. The resident manager was unable to check in every unit as the smoke and heat was to intense,” the text reads.
Juliana Cortes made a rush to evacuate on foot with her husband, Camilo Cortes, when she noticed the air filling with smoke, said her granddaughter, Jadelyn Fujii.
The 88-year-old woman tried to open a neighbor’s door to warn her as they fled, but the door was locked, Fujii said.
“When my grandmother was trying to escape, she tried to save her neighbor that lives like next door,” Fujii said. “She tried knocking on her door and like kicking it down, but she wouldn’t answer.”
It’s unclear who the neighbor was, but it is not one of the people identified by Civil Beat as currently being missing.
The couple had to abandon Camilo Cortes’ wheelchair but somehow made their way down a hill and to a nearby road, where they held themselves up by holding onto a single cane together while trying to flag down passing cars.
Evacuees driving by stopped to help the couple, but they ended up in different cars headed to different parts of the island. It took several days for them to be reunited and for their family to find them, Fujii said.
Lots Of Questions, Few Answers
In the days following the fire, families said they made multiple efforts to reach out to Hale Mahaolu to find out if there was any information about what might have happened during the fire, any evacuation efforts that were made, any lists of residents who escaped. Multiple families told Civil Beat they have received little or no response.
“Families are heartbroken and they want answers, whether it’s good or bad,” Amine said. “We want to be heard. We want to be acknowledged and we want the truth.”
Instead, the best source of information has been social media. Several families have been able to connect online. They’ve shared every little snippet of information they can. About who fled. About who was last seen where. About who may not have made it out.
Abihai’s family has spent a week searching for her across the island and posting in every possible social media group they can think of.
“She was the matriarch of our family. She was our family,” Amine said.
The 97-year-old Abihai was also related to Virgie Dofa, another one of the missing residents.
The lack of information being provided to families is particularly troubling, Amine said.
“Not getting answers or responses breaks the trust with systems like this,” she said in a message. “You trust them to take care of a loved one because that is their mission and purpose. And now how can families trust them?”
June Anbe’s great-niece, Challys Pascual, said a police detective contacted her on Saturday recommending that someone from the family go to a community center in Kahului to provide a DNA sample in case Anbe’s remains are located.
“We’re hoping that she’s with her friends or neighbors that were in the area with her,” Pascual said earlier in the week. “But it’s not looking too good. They were just left there.”
Anbe is asthmatic and walks with a cane, Pascual said.
Missing resident Alfie Rawlings, who was originally from Scotland and had lived in Lahaina for 33 years, was in failing health and got around with the assistance of an electric wheelchair.
Colette Payne, a nurse who helped care for Rawlings, says the wheelchair was so wide that she’s not sure he would have been able to get it out of the door of his unit on his own.
“The idea of the sirens not going off and them not having warning is tragic,” Payne said. “They would have been the prime victims. They are not mobile. Alfie doesn’t have a way to get out unless someone helps him.”
Rawlings’ daughter said she keeps sending her father messages on email and Facebook messenger, hoping he will answer.
“I’m absolutely distraught at the thought of how scared he would have been when he couldn’t get away from the flames,” she said.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.