A retired Christchurch woman living in Hawaii is traumatised after losing everything to the wildfire, while a Gisborne man says he “went to hell and back” as they both recount the horror firestorm.
The death toll from the wildfires on the island of Maui now stands at 101, Governor of Hawaii John Green told CNN. Only three bodies have been identified so far.
Barbara Henny, 75, ran from her pensioner flat in Lahaina as trees around her burned last Tuesday, taking only her passports, her bank cards, and her cat bundled in a blanket.
“She just ran to the road and was able to hail down a driver who was fleeing,” Henny’s nephew, Matt Hardie, told the Herald.
“Her cat, Lulu, was the most important thing to her,” Hardie said. But as Henny got in the car her cat escaped her arms and ran towards the flames.
“[Henny] wanted to chase after her, but, yeah, she just described it as a firestorm. She says it was like nothing you could imagine”
Henny, who moved to Hawaii about 15 years ago, fled as her flat burned and described cars around her bursting into flames.
“She said it was like Armageddon. You couldn’t see because there was smoke.”
Henny’s family, who remain in Christchurch, didn’t hear from her in days and reported her as missing on social media, hoping someone would recognise her.
“I spoke to her earlier today,” Hardie said, “and she’s obviously got a bit of PTSD there.
“She didn’t have much, but what she did lose was all those important things; the photo albums, the heirlooms, family jewellery, her dairies with everyone’s birthday,” he said.
“She literally escaped with the dress she was wearing and her New Zealand and American passports. Everything else was gone.”
Hardie said the concern now was helping Henny rebuild her life: “It’s not easy completely restarting your life in your mid-70s.”
He said he and Henny’s family were worried about how traumatised she was, especially given her age, but he understood Henny should get support from the US civil defence group, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It was such a beautiful town. She used to go down to the beach every day. It was her own slice of paradise.”
David Foss “went to hell and back” through the deadly wildfire, jumping into the sea to escape flames, getting rescued hours later and losing “everything but our lives”.
‘It was truly heaven on earth. Now it’s all gone’
Originally from Gisborne, Foss has lived in Lahaina, on Maui, for the past three years: “It was truly heaven on earth and now it[’s] all gone,” his partner said.
Last Tuesday, as Foss tried to save what he could, flames lapped across his street and caught fire to parked cars. He jumped into the ocean to escape.
“I can’t begin to tell you how horrific this firestorm was. I know my life will never be the same after what I saw,” Foss said.
Emergency workers with axes and cadaver dogs have picked through the aftermath of the blaze.
The inferno torched hundreds of houses and turned the tropical landscape into a hellscape of ash and rubble.
Foss’ partner, Kerry Reiger Buitrago, was supposed to meet him on a nearby beach. She described walking along the beach with smoke billowing behind her.
“I was ... trying to stay ahead of the fire and black smoke but it was roaring like a freight train behind [me],” Reiger Buitrago said.
“The heat felt like flames were going to overcome us.
“Palm trees everywhere were on fire. It looked like it was truly the end of the world,” she said.
Reiger Buitrago said she walked to an evacuation centre at Kaanapali, but when she found out the centre itself had been evacuated she kept walking.
Foss went missing until the US Coastguard rescued him and reunited him with his partner several hours after he escaped into the water.
“[I’m] back with my sweetheart. [I’m] just so happy Kerry and the kiddos are safe. Life without her would be unbearable,” he said.
“We lost everything but our lives.”
Reiger Buitrago set up a Gofundme page, which has so far raised more than NZ$48,000. “We don’t know how to start again but we need basics like clothes and shoes, new vehicles, hand and power tools so my boyfriend can work again,” Reiger Buitrago said.
“We escaped with the clothes we were wearing and our cat and dog and nothing more. Our hearts and lives will never be the same.”
Foss asked people to keep the people of Maui in their prayers.
Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.