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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

It was an oasis for Maui elders. The fire brought terror and death.

From left: Clifford Abihai, Kehau Ashton, Benny Caluya and Leilani Caluya, who are all related to Louise Abihai, one of the residents of the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior-living complex who is still missing, at a hotel in Kahului, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023.

By Jack Healy

Before fire tore through the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior-living complex, trapping a man in his wheelchair and forcing a 95-year-old grandmother to flee through a blizzard of embers, before it killed two close friends and left neighbors missing, people felt lucky to live there.

The independent-living complex in Lahaina was one of the few housing options for low-income older adults on Maui, where soaring rents have forced more and more seniors into homeless shelters or onto five-year waiting lists for subsidized housing.

At Eono, residents said they paid as little as $150 a month for palm-fringed one-bedrooms overlooking the Pacific. They held group barbecues and monthly birthday celebrations. They felt like they had found stability on an island where many elders — known in Hawaiian as “kupuna” — had been priced out after a lifetime of raising families and serving tourists.

“If you got in there, you won the lottery,” said Sanford Hill, 72, a photographer who grew up on Oahu and spent two years homeless before he landed a spot at the complex. “You stay till you die.”

They did not think death would come like this.

Their 35-unit apartment complex in Lahaina may have been one of the first major buildings consumed as a brush fire tumbled down from the hills on Aug. 8. Two residents of Eono have been named among the 114 confirmed deaths, and another half-dozen residents are still not accounted for, families said in interviews.

Now, survivors and families of the missing are asking whether Maui officials and managers at the complex could have done more to save one of the most vulnerable clusters of people in Lahaina from the fast-moving inferno.

“We were all on our own,” said Tina Bass, 72, a resident who said she grabbed a neighbor cowering behind a bush in a parking lot and fled in her white minivan as flames hurtled toward the complex.

When fire broke out in the hills above Lahaina early on Tuesday morning, staff members at the complex knocked on doors and warned that residents might have to leave, said Hale Mahaolu, the nonprofit that operates the complex. But residents said they never received any formal guidance to flee. When the blaze, thought to be extinguished, rekindled later that afternoon and roared toward their complex, they said nobody came to help them.

Older people are often at greater risk when natural disasters strike, often trapped in sweltering nursing homes after hurricanes or pinned down by fires. The authorities on Maui have only begun to identify the dead, but the six victims whose names and ages have been released are older than 70.

“They had a duty to keep people safe,” Bass said. “Knock on their doors, drag them by the hand and stick them in your car.”

Hale Mahaolu, which operates government-subsidized housing for families and seniors across Maui, said in a statement that it was helping to get aid, money and housing resources to displaced residents, and locate missing ones. Grant Chun, its executive director, said that “all staff members and most tenants” were safe after the fire, and that the group was trying to reach missing residents.

“The safety of our tenants has always been our foremost priority,” Chun said in a statement. The organization did not say whether it had formal evacuation plans.

As an independent-living complex for people 62 and older, Hale Mahaolu Eono was not subject to the same safety rules requiring evacuation plans that govern assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, experts said.

The complex had an on-site manager and groundskeeper, but no nurses or aides. Some residents still had cars and jobs, such as Buddy Jantoc, a 79-year-old musician who still played gigs at hula shows. Jantoc was one of the first confirmed victims of the fire.

Residents spent their days ferrying grandchildren to and from school, archiving decades’ worth of photographs, or cooking chicken adobo and Filipino spare ribs.

They forged easy bonds with their neighbors, met in a community room to play cards, and every month gathered to celebrate birthdays. They celebrated the Fourth of July together with hot dogs.

But several residents did not have cars, families said. Some used walkers or wheelchairs. One man was legally blind. Another struggled to get onto the toilet.

“Where’s the help for them?” asked Clifford Abihai, whose 97-year-old grandmother, Louise Abihai, was still listed as missing.

Louise Abihai had grown up on Maui, in a home where she drew water from the well, family members said. She would chuckle recounting her days riding a donkey to school — an education that was cut short when she left elementary school to raise her brothers and sisters.

Abihai’s family was amazed at her vitality. She still went to 7 a.m. Mass at Maria Lanakila Catholic Church, and had driven until she bumped into a concrete pillar at age 95. She loved Korean soap operas and the K-pop group BTS, and always called her grandchildren on their birthdays. She also exasperated her family by leaving her cellphone off so she wouldn’t drain its battery.

But no matter how sharp and strong she was, her family said that at 97, she should not have been forced to try to flee a wildfire on her own.

“They’re independent. It doesn’t mean they can go outside and run,” Clifford Abihai, her grandson, said.

Abihai’s family papered West Maui with missing posters and chased down the faintest rumors of her presence. When someone reported spotting her at the Ritz-Carlton on the north side of the island, relatives raced to scour the emptied-out beaches.

They and other families say they have grown increasingly frustrated by not knowing whether their great-grandparents, aunties and uncles are alive or dead. They say they have gotten little information from local officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or staff members at Hale Mahaolu headquarters, which was far outside the fire zone.

Hale Mahaolu said that most residents “heeded our warnings to leave the property,” but that four people declined to leave when the lone staff member offered to help them evacuate.

“Our tenants are independent adults, who navigate their own lives,” the nonprofit said. “Similarly to regular apartment buildings, independent-living apartments do not typically evacuate tenants during disasters.”

Some residents challenged that timeline. Bass, who fled in her minivan with a neighbor, said nobody warned her. Hill, the photographer, said he was home until he left for a dentist’s appointment at 1 p.m. on Aug. 8 and never got a knock on his door.

“They didn’t notify me in any way,” he said.

Gloria Perreira, 71, said she did not smell smoke until around 2 p.m. that day, and said that quite a few people were still at the complex. By 3 p.m., the air was so thick with smoke that Perreira said she could no longer see nearby trees, and the hurricane-force gusts were spraying embers and flame everywhere.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out,’” she said. She grabbed her medications and a water flask and bolted to her car. “Some of them in wheelchairs weren’t able to leave. I don’t know what happened to them.”

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