Officers try to mobilize people to leave and cope with a rapidly changing scene. One officer watches his own house burn.
Body camera footage of the lethal Aug. 8 fires released by the Maui Police Department on Tuesday shows stark vignettes of officers rousting people from their homes, redirecting traffic as the flames leapt over escape routes and even trying to stop the inexorable advance with garden hoses.
One clip shows an officer watching his own house burn as fire crews tried to save it. In another, police ask about an injured firefighter who is apparently the son of one of their colleagues. Police discuss the implications of their own station burning down, such as the possibility of bullets detonating.
MPD released a 16-minute reel of bodycam footage on Monday. But the video made public on Tuesday is far more extensive, including several hours. Some is from the early morning, when officers woke people up to get them to evacuate from the path of brush fires that were later thought to be contained.
Much of the video is from late in the afternoon, when the fire came back with a vengeance and razed much of Lahaina town. It extends into the early morning of the following day, as officers transported evacuees and burn victims.
MPD said additional footage is being withheld because it pertains to ongoing investigations into the fire. The department did not respond to questions Tuesday about what’s included in that video.
The hours of footage released Tuesday still don’t paint a full picture. Without context, it can be hard to determine what’s going on. Audio goes silent at points, and in some instances the video is obscured by officers’ traffic vests and other obstructions.
Most of the clips are labeled with the date and time, but that information is blocked out in others. And the videos don’t specify the location in which they were filmed, although street signs, businesses and other landmarks provide clues.
The footage will be used as part of an internal Maui Police Department after-action review that will assess the department’s performance that day. It is also likely to be analyzed as part of an investigation authorized by Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez and in numerous fire-related civil lawsuits that have been filed against the county, Hawaiian Electric and others.
One recurring theme is the difficulty in getting traffic to move and confusion over what was happening.
After 5 p.m., officers worked to direct traffic out of Lahaina from the south and keep incoming traffic from entering the town.
At times, officers had to halt the outbound traffic to allow the inbound cars to make U-turns and leave or to allow emergency vehicles through, body camera footage shows. But none of the footage released so far has shown what some community members have alleged: that officers had outbound traffic turn around back toward the flames.
At some point in the day – the exact time is redacted from the video – a voice on an officer’s radio referred to the difficulty of getting everyone out of the town.
“Right now we barricaded everybody to Front Street and try to push them out of there because the fire is coming down,” the male voice said. “They can’t get out of Lahaina … They want to go up Keawe, but we shut that down. But as soon as I can, I’m going to have somebody check Hokiokio.”
It’s unclear whether it was an officer speaking, a dispatcher or someone else.
Ultimately, many people who were trapped in traffic on Front Street were never able to get out of the gridlock. A total of 99 people died there and elsewhere.
At about 5:35 p.m., radio chatter caught on bodycam captures some of the frustration. “Tell people to get out of the way, let some cars through, because we’re still a parking lot over here,” one voice says. Another warns that something needs to be done about southbound traffic at Dickenson Street near the highway. “The fire looks like it’s jumping right at Dickenson,” he said.
As one officer directed traffic at Front Street and Hoopiilani, other officers could be heard over a radio discussing their efforts to get some people out via the old cane haul road that crosses Keawe Street and stretches far into the hills north of town.
“Some guy’s got one key he’s going to open the gate … so you can start leading some guys down that road,” an officer said over the radio.
“Yeah, cause the fire’s pretty bad up there. Try get everyone out,” someone else responded.
That police radio chatter generally supported the accounts that residents have given of their efforts to get at least some people out of Lahaina by guiding drivers off Keawe and onto that rugged road. Some Maui residents have pressed to make the road an official, paved emergency evacuation route.
Going Door To Door
Several clips show officers trying to evacuate neighborhoods, including using their vehicle public address systems to tell people to leave with only their medicines and their pets.
Over and over, as smoke billowed around his car, one officer announced over the PA: “This is the Maui Police Department. You guys need to evacuate rapidly.”
The video shows one officer helping an elderly woman with a cane into his car. The officer checked on her landlord before driving away.
“Hurry! Get your stuff and get out,” he called into the house.
Other officers raced to alert people by going door to door, knocking on doors and windows and ringing doorbells. One officer, coughing from the smoke darkening the skies around her, ran into a colleague who was sitting in his patrol car watching a house burn.
“Oh, this is your house?” she said.
At least one officer sped through Lahaina and repeatedly blared on his PA system, “Everyone evacuate and head north on the highway.”
He drove along Front Street, around Lahaina Cannery Mall and into the adjacent neighborhood, to tell residents to flee, at one point even telling people to stop fighting the fire with garden hoses.
As late as almost 10 p.m., the body cam footage shows officers with flashlights running room to room in several houses even as the flames approach from down the block.
“We gotta fucking go, brah,” one officer says. “The fire’s right here.”
Quickly Evolving Scenes
The footage shows officers trying to make sense of a rapidly evolving situation and communicate it to the public.
“Front Street is getting pretty fucked up,” one officer tells another as he pulls up to the intersection of Front Street and Honoapiilani Highway, one of the main escape points from town.
That officer informed others that the fire had reached apartments on Front Street and to tell people not to go that way.
Into the night, officers continued to express confusion about where to direct fleeing residents.
One officer said he didn’t know what to tell people beyond that they should head north.
“I’m just telling everybody drive north, follow traffic,” he said.
In the same video clip, that officer explains to another that fast-changing information caused a traffic jam at the intersection where they spoke.
“They shut down the thing and didn’t tell anybody” he said. “So everyone started dumping out of here from all directions and it got all jacked.”
In several bodycam videos, officers express concerns about a firefighter who was seriously injured. As MPD units patrolled through Kahoma Village, one officer asked another whether a CPR revival involved a firefighter. They feared that the injured firefighter might be another MPD officer’s son. Moments later, a different officer in the area asked about the “firefighter that went down.”
A Maui fire captain was seriously injured during the blaze when he suffered smoke inhalation, and according to media reports some witnesses saw firefighters performing CPR on one of their colleagues as they escaped.
The firefighter was treated at The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu and later returned to Maui to recover.
The video makes clear that law enforcement knew early on in the disaster that there were fatalities.
As of 5 p.m., as officers worked to turn around cars that were trying to enter Lahaina from the south, one officer emphasized the seriousness of the situation.
“OK, long story short, this town is on fire,” she said. “We have multiple people who have died.”
Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, the state’s adjutant general who oversees the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen have said they didn’t hear about fatalities until the next day.
Officers did what they could. At about 5:30 p.m., an officer and several residents attached garden hoses to spigots at Lahaina Intermediate School. The footage shows the officer, for 20 minutes, dousing some hotspots as small flames advance through the grass nearby. The school building survived.
The footage also shows officers considering various alarming possibilities.
Just after 11:15 p.m., as the fire continued to glow to the south, two police officers near the Lahaina Civic Center discussed whether they had retrieved all the necessary supplies from the nearby police station in case the fire reached that far north.
“We got the guns out, yeah?” one asked.
“We got them,” another responds. “Cap got the rifles. I put the shotguns and rifles in his trunk.”
They said they didn’t get all of the bullets and ammunition, however.
“If it goes up, fuck it, I guess. Whatever. It’s concrete walls,” one of the officers says.
Moments later, his colleague decides he’ll go back and retrieve more ammunition from the station — just in case.
His colleague agreed that would be a good idea: “I don’t know if we’re going to be dealing with civil unrest for the next couple fucking weeks.”
The following day, at 3:30 a.m.,an officer from Kihei transported a burn victim to a triage area. The man said he had been burned while running across the street in front of his house. The two discussed what they had seen – which landmarks they already knew to be gone.
“It’s a nightmare, dude,” the officer said.
He said he had played golf in Lahaina the day before, and could not even imagine then that something like this could happen.
The burn victim replied, “I lost my ID, my birth certificate, social security card … “I don’t even know where to begin.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.