Pleas for help and grim predictions can be heard on 911 calls newly released by Maui County, which provide a deeper understanding of the chaos, confusion and terror people in Hawaii experienced when a deadly wildfire leveled the town of Lahaina in August.
“People are going to die here,” a panicked man told 911 dispatchers when trying to get someone to help with roadblocks.
At least 98 people died in the fire, with several more still unaccounted for more than two months later.
You can hear the tone of dispatchers’ voices escalate from calm to helpless as they realize the extent of the tragedy unfolding on the other end of the line.
“If you’re safe, you need to stay there. If you’re not safe, you need to find some way to get to the ocean,” one dispatcher told a caller.
Many lost cell service as flames engulfed the town. The island’s emergency siren system never went off, and for some, 911 dispatchers were their only contact providing help as they tried to understand what was happening. That connection was eventually lost, too.
The audio clips further tell the story of people trapped with no way out—stories we heard repeatedly when Scripps News reported from West Maui in August.
“We’re caught in massive traffic and we’re covered in ashes and embers and there’s a lot of people honking and trying to get out of the road,” one female caller said. “It’s just really scary.”
Maui County said it reluctantly released the tapes as part of a legal request for public records, fearing the recordings might prompt some survivors to relive their terror.
The tapes also show residents were concerned about power lines. One downed line sparked dry grass, leading the county and some residents to eventually sue Hawaiian Electric, claiming negligence.
The audio release comes just days after some hotels in West Maui have reopened to visitors, but not without a video message from Maui County’s mayor acknowledging the challenge of accepting tourists again so soon. A separate video released offers a message to visitors on how to do so respectfully.