I Wish my Doll had Been Made of Metal: The Heartbreak of the Lahaina Inferno (Essay)

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By Bruce Farrell Rosen,

One of my favorite places in all the world was Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.  I first travelled there in the summer of 1975 with a friend who had come over to vacation with me following the conclusion of our respective college years.  I had been a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but had taken a year to study at the University of Hawaii, just having to get the experience of living in Hawaii into my bloodstream.  He had come over from Los Angeles, had never been to Hawaii, flew to meet me in Honolulu and together we went to Maui.  And we stayed at a little hotel in Lahaina.

Lahaina, the capital of the Hawaiian Islands from 1820-1845, had grown into a global trading hub with the arrival of whaling ships.  But in the Summer of 1975 it really didn’t look all that different from the way it looked on the morning of August 8, 2023, the day of incomprehensible tragedy, the day it essentially burned to obliteration.

Yes, it had grown outward a bit, some homes constructed along Front Street in both directions for a mile or two.  And it had grown up the hill as well–up the hill into the dry grasslands from where a spark would be carried by almost hurricane force winds at a speed of a mile a minute, flaming spears that would give no quarter, no mercy, scorching, trapping, destroying, malevolently and mercilessly killing, a destruction so complete and swift that it practically defies comprehension.

Except for some different restaurants and some modest expansion Lahaina in 2023 looked much as it did in 1975, and on almost every precious day between those years.  The Harbor looked much the same and what a joy it was to walk among the boats, a bottle of beer in hand, boats being cleaned and polished, the smell of the sea so salty, owners coming in, going out, or just enjoying a burger on their decks.  The shops of Front Street along ocean changed from one to another, restaurants became a bit more upscale, but no all of them.  There were plenty of little joints along the water that brought such joy.

And of course there was the constant– that rail overlooking the ocean along the walkway that separated the shops of one part of Front Street from the shops on the other.

It was along this little over pass that many would stop and eat their ice creams, and it would be the place from where many would jump on August 8, some surviving in the water, some not.  Some clinging to the rocks, gasping for fresh air, some swimming further out to sea, some surviving and some not.

Yes, back in 1975, back when I was 20 we sat at the foot of the Banyan Tree, the Banyan Tree that had already become the iconic symbol of Lahaina.  It had been brought to Lahaina as a gift from India in 1873, a gift to commemorate the first Protestant Mission in Lahaina.

By 1975 its canopy of branches and multiple trunks that seemed to stretch out everywhere had virtually taken over the entire park.
Yes, we sat and played music, and drank wine at the foot of the Banyan tree, college students in Lahaina heaven.  Of course, we just couldn’t get over how beautiful the girls were, one by one and two by two they passed–we were in awe.

I have been coming to Lahaina ever since 1975.  Michael was born in 1986 and within a couple of years we would bring him to Maui, to Lahaina, to eat ice cream. Jonathan was born in 1989 and within a couple of years we would bring him and Michael to Maui, to Lahaina for ice cream.

We would bring my mom, who rarely was able to take a vacation in her life–we would bring her with the boys to Maui, to Lahaina, and she would love it.  We would do it annually for years, and everyone would so excitedly look forward to it.  These years were the highlights of our lives, the highlights of our years as a family–for Sue and myself–and some of the best moments their grandmother ever experienced.

I purchased a home in Kapalua, about fifteen miles north of Lahaina in 2016.  The boys are now grown and they just love it.  It is right on the ocean, the sound of the sea coming through the bedroom at night.  Sue and I are no longer married, but are the best of friends.  She goes often and finds such joy there.

I am now with another woman, and her name is Susan.  On the night of August 6, two nights before the inferno we had dinner in Lahaina at the Paia Grill.  I loved their blackened fish and jambalaya rice, downed with delicious root beer from the Maui Brewing Company.  Prior to the dinner, we purchased bags for ourselves and gifts of the most delicious coffee in the world: the Coffees of Bad Ass Coffee.  They had every variety of Maui and Kona coffees.

The aromas wafted through the bags, and it is a stop that we must make on every visit.  The same person has been serving us for years, and every time I buy his coffees he surprises me with a t-shirt, or an extra few bags of coffee.  I hope he is alive today. I pray that he is.  Paia Grill was on Front Street, as was Bad Ass Coffee, and a few doors before Bad Ass Coffee–also on Front Street–is the only place in all of the world that you can buy varieties of Honolulu Cookies, some of the most delicious cookies I’ve ever had.  On the night of August 6, we bought boxes to bring back as gifts.  And I hope the lovely woman that helped with the assortment is alive.  I pray that she is.

The evening of August 7 had become disturbing. As it grew later into the evening the winds began to howl a fierceness of sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard.  The wind sounded threatening, like it could detonate, It had gone well beyond a roar, to something dangerous.  And the ocean accompanied the wind, its hissing becoming more and more intense, and its depths seemingly becoming deeper with every second.

The following morning, August 8, I sent a video of the bending trees and howling wind to a friend on the mainland.  The wind was startling and I wanted her to hear it. The ocean roared and was pure whitecap all the way to island of Molokai which is visible from our balcony. There are normally snorkelling boats off in the distance but on this morning the sea was empty.

A couple of hours later I received a call from a friend telling me that he was traveling through Lahaina, on his way to the other side of the island, that there had been a grass fire that had been declared contained, and he was going to turn around and come back up to Kapalua–because as fierce as the winds had been further north, down in Lahaina it was far stronger.

Shortly after our phone call the power went out, but we still had phone, texting and internet service.  We went for a swim and when we returned there was no communication whatsoever: no ability to text, phone or access the internet.  This was at about four thirty in the afternoon and we had no idea that this loss of communication was because about 29 of 30 telephone poles and wires had been knocked down, resulting in a raging fire that had destroyed all of the fibre optic cables and all communication towers in the area.  We had no idea that Lahaina was an inferno with virtually no exit for those trapped.

We went to a restaurant down the beach, a place called the Hideaway at the Montage Hotel.  And this is where we discovered the horror that was unfolding.  A woman had come into the restaurant just ahead of the fire, hysterical, desperate, having just escaped Lahaina.  And as we sat here, more and more stories were being told by people that were just hearing about Lahaina.  The first hand knowledge of what was happening came from the woman that had escaped, but, again, no-one, not anywhere in and around us had any access to live communication.

The power was out everywhere in Kapalua, including every home and hotel.  We went back to our home, lit candles and prayed that all would be OK in Lahaina.  We hoped for communications access that never occurred, we were anxious for the power to be restored: we had heard that it would be restored by midnight, but it didn’t happen.  Nor did it come on the following day or the next day or the day after that.  And that night into the following morning there was no way to communicate.

We had heard that there was a little area at the back of a condo complex, against some sandbags next to ocean five miles down the road where we might be able to get a phone signal.  We had to try it, even though we had barely enough gas to get ourselves to the other side of the island to return home at some point.  There was no power so there was no pumping of gas.

It worked.  I was able to reach Sue, my lifelong friend and mother of our children.  She had been in a panic.  She knew far more than we did.

She was so relieved to hear of our safety.

We had also heard that there were better communications up the hill next to the small Kapalua airport, which was closed and being used for search and rescue operations.  Later that day we went there and, yes, we were able to communicate.  My girlfriend Susan reached her sister, who was able to book us on a flight for Friday August 11, instead of waiting until August 13.  Who knew if the flight out on the 13th would be possible, but we booked this flight which had just been added by United.

The following day we were told that a restaurant at the golf course, the Taverna, was giving away food, making hamburgers, brisket, etc for the public.  There was no refrigeration and food was spoiling after a few days.  Indeed, we were hungry.  A burger never tasted so good.

While in line I stood behind a little boy of six years old.  He had just started first grade.  He was traumatized and we spoke.  And the more we spoke the more we spoke.  He had told me that they were at his grandfathers house in Lahaina and it had not burned, but he was afraid that his house would burn.  He told his mom that they had to go home so that he could retrieve his doll.  They went back to the home but it was on fire.

And so they evacuated to this area of Kapalua.  Hilo was his name, and we bonded.  He told me that he had wished his doll had been made of metal so that it wouldn’t burn.  He told me that he never wanted to see a fire again, even in the oven.  Then he said that he wanted to be a fireman because he wanted to save lives.  He said that he loved climbing trees because he could see the secrets down below.

I said to him you must be the smartest child in his first grade class.  He thought for a moment and said ” no, probably the second or third.”  I said “who is the first and second “?  He thought for a moment and said ” actually that he was the smartest, that the first and second were not as smart as him.”  Some punch was being served and we each went to the counter to get a glass.  I  told him that we should clink glasses and make a wish.  He thought that was a good idea.  So we touched glasses and as we did he shut his eyes tightly in the form of making a wish. ” Did you make a special wish ? I asked.  ” Yes” he said.  And I said “you are going to have a nice home to go to soon.  You’ll see ”  And he smiled.

We ate burgers together, I got up for a bit to walk around, and when I returned he was gone.  I was sad.  I wanted to say goodbye.  I’m sure he wanted to say goodbye.  I’ll love this little boy forever.  And I’ll wonder about his life.

A few days later we had just enough gas to get off the island. As we drove to the airport there were signs everywhere saying “Mana”.  It means power, strength, determination, spirit and aloha.  It means we can do this.  We can overcome this.  And, yes, they will.

Upon arriving at the airport, I hugged the attendants that helped us.  I shared an aloha bond even with the TSA guy! I cried for Maui, for Lahaina. And I always will.  I loved Lahaina.  And I love Maui.

Before boarding the plane, the pilot sent a message into the waiting room, a compassionate message of care, and that he would do all he could to make our flight home enjoyable. And he did just that. There was kindness on that flight.  And a sense of unreality.
When we arrived home all seemed less real than where we had been–and where had been had seemed shockingly unreal.  I am at home, glad to be home in San Francisco, but part of my heart is in Maui.

Bruce Farrell Rosen has retired recently after forty years as an investment manager in San Francisco. He is also an author of two books, ” Bombed in his bed the confessions of Jewish Gangster Myer Rush, and ” If you Ever Need Me, I Won’t be far away”. He has authored numerous articles for the BBC, Baseball Hall of Fame, San Francisco Chronicle, Marin Independent Journal and others. He lives in San Francisco, Calif.

Read Bruce Farrell Rosens other essay: Gordon Lightfoot’s Music was the Soundtrack to My Life

Plus, watch our interview with him: Esoterica Mag’s interview with Bruce Farrell Rosen on his book, “Bombed in His Bed: The Confessions of Jewish Gangster Myer Rush.”


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