A Hawaii senior recounts his ‘dumb luck’ escape as Maui struggles to identify dead

Sanford Hill’s survival, as he describes it, can only be attributed to “dumb luck.” Amidst the devastation left by the wildfire that engulfed his senior living facility in Lahaina, he now sits in temporary housing on the opposite side of Maui. Hill, at 72, is grappling to make sense of his escape and grappling even harder to comprehend how his fellow neighbors, all of them aged 62 or older, fared in the face of this disaster. The agonizing truth is that there are no answers, no way for them to ascertain who made it through the ordeal.

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More than a week has passed since the devastating wildfires ripped through the western region of Maui. Yet, authorities have only been able to publicly identify two victims, while a staggering 106 human remains have been discovered in the fire-ravaged zone, awaiting identification. This number, chilling as it is, might just double, a stark reminder of the toll this catastrophe has taken on lives. Sanford Hill’s experience echoes the sentiment of uncertainty felt by countless others in his situation.

Amidst the ashes, a void of information and communication compounds the survivors’ torment. Hill’s search for answers led him to contact the company that owned the now-destroyed senior living facility, Hale Mahaolu Eono. However, his attempts were met with disappointment as the staff informed him that they were bereft of any information. The frustration resonates across others’ stories as well. Relatives of those missing from Hale Mahaolu Eono have been left in limbo, desperately seeking information from the very company that should have offered assistance.

One heart-wrenching narrative comes from Clifford Abihai, who embarked on a journey from California to Lahaina in search of his 98-year-old grandmother. His attempts to find her have been met with countless dead-ends. “It’s frustrating, very frustrating,” he voiced his exasperation. He scoured missing person tents, reached out to the Red Cross, and plastered the area with flyers, all in a desperate attempt to gather any shred of information about his beloved grandmother. She’s described as the strongest pillar of their family, an embodiment of resilience. Abihai’s determination shines through despite the adversity. “I felt helpless in California, I feel helpless here,” he acknowledged. “But all in all, I’m still going to try. I’m not going to stop.” (

Danielle, who withheld her last name, paints another heartbreaking picture. Her 90-year-old grandmother lived in the building that now stands as ruins. ( For her, the agony lies in feeling utterly “stuck,” as she waits for any news. The helplessness is palpable as she yearns for any scrap of information about her missing family member. The emotional turmoil she endures is a testament to the emotional wreckage left in the wake of this catastrophe.

Amidst the desperation, Hale Mahaolu’s response to the situation adds another layer of bewilderment. The company’s silence amplifies the chaos for those still seeking answers. The torment of not knowing the fate of their loved ones, compounded by the lack of support from the very institution responsible for their well-being, paints a dire picture of the aftermath.

The trauma experienced by Hill and his neighbors is further compounded by the shockwaves that reverberated through that fateful day. Much like thousands of others, Hill found himself lulled into a false sense of security as the fire initially appeared to be under control. An alert on his phone and a seemingly contained fire downplayed the urgency. The community, unaware of the impending danger, continued with their routines. However, fate had other plans.

The ferocity of the fire rekindled, fueled by the relentless winds. Panic ensued as reality set in—the town was ablaze. The emergency sirens, meant to signal danger, remained ominously silent. Hill’s recounting of his encounter with a woman fleeing the flames paints a vivid image of the chaos that unfolded. With the town engulfed in a sea of flames, they embarked on a perilous journey to safety, a journey emblematic of the dire circumstances they faced.

The struggle for survival in the face of adversity forced Hill into an unplanned odyssey of temporary shelters and newfound lodging. ( The aftermath of the calamity only added to his uncertainty. ( For someone who had finally found stability after a period of homelessness, the future is now marred by an uncertain prospect of finding a new permanent home. The heartbreak compounds as he mourns the loss of irreplaceable memories captured in decades-worth of photographs.

The weight of his survival is almost unbearable, underscored by his feelings of guilt for making it through when so many others did not. It’s a sentiment that many survivors grapple with—a mix of gratitude for life mingled with the crushing weight of survivor’s guilt. ( Hill’s emotional turmoil reflects a microcosm of the collective experience of those who emerged from the inferno. (

The tragedy leaves a lingering question: How did authorities and systems fail to respond effectively to such a devastating event? The inadequacy of preparation and the lack of timely warnings are stark reminders that the aftermath of disasters is not solely about the physical destruction but also the emotional wounds left behind.

Sanford Hill’s story is one of miraculous escape and haunting uncertainty. It’s a story that stirs emotions of empathy, grief, and reflection. As the survivors grapple with their new reality, they deserve not only answers but also a society that learns from this tragedy, ensuring that such an ordeal never befalls another community. ( Until then, Sanford Hill and countless others will carry the weight of their survival, an experience that defies comprehension.

What are your thoughts on this heart-wrenching tale of survival and uncertainty? Share your reflections in the comments below. (

James Julian

James is a former journalist and a current author, independent writer, entrepreneur, and investor.

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