It was supposed to be a memorable summer vacation in a tropical paradise to celebrate an exciting new chapter of life.
But it ended up being a horrifying experience, filled with fear and sadness, and an unforgettable lesson on the wickedness of a wildfire, and the vulnerability of those in its path.
Cindy Bell of Atwater made wonderful plans earlier this year to take her granddaughter, Nevaeh, a recent Buhach Colony graduate, and her friend, Delaney, on a trip to Maui.
They picked Maui because they thought it would be more “low-key” than the Big Island or Oahu. They were just going to hang out, attend a lūʻau, take a surfing lesson, maybe do some zip lining.
“We had four really great days,” Bell told the Times, “and then it became hell.”
Some Times readers may recognize the name Cindy Bell. She is an elected member of the McSwain School Board. She also owns the Silver Bell Barn, a premier equestrian training facility on Highway 140 and Applegate Road.
Bell with the young ladies in tow flew to the El Dorado Beach Hotel in Kaanapali, Maui on Aug. 2. The small, condo-like resort is next to a golf course about 4 miles from the center of Lahaina. Little did they know that large parts of that popular tourist town would be reduced to ashes in only a few days.
Like Bell said before, everything went well at first. They even went to a lūʻau. However, on the fifth full day of their vacation, Aug. 7, the power went out in the early hours. Bell noticed while she was still in bed, but she waited until morning to go check at the resort’s office.
“Everybody said, ‘Don’t worry. We are just getting a tropical storm. Maybe some winds from a far off hurricane. Nothing to worry about.’”
In reality, winds were developing from the powerful Hurricane Dora that was passing hundreds of miles south of Hawaii.
“I could tell the wind was picking up,” Bell said. “Then I couldn’t get an Uber to take me to the store. They said there was no electricity, so stores and restaurants would be closed.”
The only place they discovered that was open was the Safeway, close to Lahaina. The trio finally attracted an Uber, and made it there, only to discover an overwhelming number of people doing the same thing.
“We just bought some chicken for a BBQ, and a few things for the night,” Bell recalled. “And when we came out of the store, there were already like 100 mph winds. We got an Uber back to the resort — thank goodness — but on the way, as it stopped at a stop sign, we could see electrical poles falling. I kept telling the driver, ‘Please do not go that way … Don’t go that way.’”
The driver turned around, and went up the historic Front Street, while Bell and the teens were seeing poles that already came down.
“When the electrical poles started falling around us, there was no fire yet, but I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just like Paradise or Santa Rosa’ My son works for PG&E, so I know what happens when poles start falling. Not good. The winds are bad. I didn’t know if the electricity was off there or not. It was very scary. I was thinking, ‘We’re in trouble.’”
Somehow Bell and the young ladies tried to find some normalcy by preparing a BBQ, but at one point they looked up and saw explosions in the distance.
“That was not a brush fire,” Bell said. “Some thought that, but I knew we had a lot more going on. … I didn’t react too much. I knew I had to keep the girls as calm as I could. I stayed calm, but I knew we were in trouble.”
By the next morning, Wednesday, there was no food and Nevaeh and Delaney were worried. The three went down to the resort office again, and this time there were tons of desperate people all around. Their expressions were haunting. They were in shock. Many of them were employees who didn’t know where their family members were. Nervous animals were nearby in cars.
“We were worried, but we immediately thought our problem was so minimal compared to theirs. … The girls were crying at that point. Delaney gave what food we had to some of the people there.”
Bell asked the office manager about a flight off the island, and she was told “Absolutely not. The roads are blocked. There is no gas available.”
They made it over to the nearby Sheraton resort where there was a generator in operation so they could charge their cell phones. But it took forever for the phones to charge. And once they did charge, there was no signal to make a call. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally found a spot where they could make a call to their families.
“Later that afternoon, we were already packed. I was sitting on a rock, and I heard someone say the winds are changing, and that ‘These hotels are done.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do now.’ If the winds changed, there was literally nowhere to go. … So I did a lot of praying. I tell you, if you don’t believe in God, you will when you are put in a situation like that.”
Bell went back to the El Dorado resort office where the radio was on. And out of nowhere, someone said, “Hey, it looks like we can get you out. We are going to take you over to the Sheraton. They have some school buses leaving at 4 p.m.”
A staff member even drove them by golf cart over the course to get to the Sheraton in time. However, a lady at the Sheraton stopped them when they arrived. They weren’t Sheraton guests. So they couldn’t get on the bus. Bell pleaded with the lady, and a nearby police officer. She informed them that she was a diabetic and she needed her medicine.
Another desperate tourist cried out, “I don’t care if we have to sit on the floor. Let us on the bus.”
At one point in the entire ordeal, Delany said: “I will stay back if somebody else needs to go.”
Said Bell, “She wanted to help everybody. She’s really cute, but I said ‘Nope, we came together, we are going to stay together, and if anyone really has to stay back, it’s going to be me.’”
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Their urgent pleas ended up working. They were allowed on the bus.
Cindy the school board member, along with Nevaeh and Delaney, were off on a harrowing, 1-hour and 15-minute, school bus journey across the island to where international flights were departing.
They finally made it, but their troubles did not end there. They were put on standby for a flight on the next day, but were told there was a possibility that the flight would be filled and they would have to spend several more days on the island, maybe even a week.
They spent the night at the airport with shredded nerves, and when it came time to board the plane the next day (Thursday, Aug. 9), they were stopped as they went up the ramp to the airplane’s entry door.
A flight attendant said, “We don’t have room for them.”
At that point, Bell was in meltdown mode.
“Put us on the floor! I don’t care! We really need to get home!”
A few tense moments passed, and then another attendant appeared, saying, “I found seats for them.”
And that’s all it took. Bell and the girls were back at the San Francisco airport later that day.
“I know it’s the same country, but I’ve never been so glad to be home in California,” Bell said upon the return.
“My heart breaks for the people of Maui. That fire just totally took everything. There are so many people dead that you don’t even know about. It’s something that weighs pretty heavy on my heart.”
Crews in west Maui, where Lahaina is located, are sifting through the ashes of incinerated homes and buildings this week. Lahaina was the hardest hit. Wildfires on that part of the island traveled a mile every minute. Around 2,200 structures in the region were destroyed. About 86 percent of the structures were residential. The historic Lahaina tourist district is all but gone.
The death toll, as of Wednesday morning, rose to 106, but the search goes on, and many more are considered missing.
The Lahaina fire has surpassed California’s Camp Fire in 2018 as the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.