Review of body cam footage raises new questions about county’s Lahaina response
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The fact people were trapped and had died in the Lahaina wildfire was repeatedly communicated by first responders to dispatch within the first two hours of the afternoon fire fight, a comprehensive review of Maui police body cam footage shows.
HNN Investigates used nearly 20 hours of timestamped police body cam footage to compile the new timeline of how the disaster unfolded. The video was obtained from MPD following open records requests aimed at gaining a better understanding of what happened — and when.
The results of the review make claims from Maui County Richard Bissen and emergency management leaders that they were unaware of the severity of the situation in Lahaina all the more perplexing. Bissen has said he didn’t learn anyone had died in the fire until the following day.
Here’s what we found:
On Aug. 8, at 3:14 p.m., body camera video shows two Maui police officers on the scene of a fire burning behind a West Maui home in the area of Komo Mai Street.
The first responders were attempting to douse the flames with a couple garden hoses, but the trickle of water was no match against relentless winds feeding the flames.
“It’s not enough hose,” one officer yelled.
“I hear a fire truck,” said the other officer as he spit ash from his mouth.
On the other side of the home another much larger blaze was raging.
An officer could be heard saying, “The fire’s booking it towards the bypass.”
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Then, at 3:18 p.m., there was a radio call from another location alerting dispatch to a road closure.
This can be heard on the video: “We got to shut down the road up to Lahainaluna.”
As firefighters arrived and took control of the scene at the spot fire, the two officers dropped the garden hoses and raced to their next call as other fires spread through Lahaina.
Over the police radio someone can be heard saying, “Visibility right now at the overpass and the bypass is about 5 feet.”
By 3:26 p.m., the gravity of the situation was setting in for first responders.
“Oh sh*t! Houses,” said one officer to his partner. “That’s a house on fire!”
His partner could be heard responding, “Bro, everything’s on fire.”
Meanwhile, video from another officer shows him using his police vehicle’s public address system to order residents to leave the area. “Everybody’s got to evacuate. Evacuate now!” the officer says.
Then about 3:30 p.m., this is heard on the radio: “Evacuate below Lahainaluna. The fire jumped the highway.” At that point, video shows the two officers who had left the scene of the spot fire trying to get to their next call. On the way, they encounter downed power lines and fire burning dangerously close to their vehicle.
“Just taking it slow, bro. Take it slow,” the officer in the passenger seat says.
The officer who’s driving responds, “Oh, (expletive) Our car’s on fire!”
“Bro, we got to tell Central (dispatch),” he said.
The officer immediately got on the radio to alert dispatchers what was going on, “Central we got to get all these cars down Lahainaluna Road. The fire’s right next to the cars. We can’t see.”
At that point, traffic was gridlocked.
“Why are the cars not moving!?” said the officer trying to drive though the flames.
Meanwhile, the public had begun to panic.
Another officer at a different location could be heard speaking to a woman. “You got to go. You blocking, sis,” he says. She responded frantically providing the officer with an address on Lahainaluna Road saying, “My uncle cannot walk. He’s handicap.”
The officer responded, “OK, but the fire needs to be put out. You got to get out of the way.”
At 3:41 p.m., radio traffic indicates the wind-whipped blaze was barreling towards Front Street. An officer could be heard on the radio: “The smoke is coming right into town with the fire behind it.”
And people were unable to escape.
At 3:47 p.m., an officer told a resident wanting to know the extent of the fire, “Brother, there’s people trapped up there where the houses are burning. We’re worried about them and their lives right now.”
Meanwhile, over the radio someone could be heard saying, “Everything is at a standstill. Front Street is at a standstill.”
By 4:10 p.m., road congestion had rapidly worsened. “Multiple power lines are down north of the station on (Honoapiilani) Highway,” an officer told dispatch.
The dispatcher responded, “We’re aware, nothing we can do”
She said, “We’ve contacted HECO. They’re doing the best they can.”
A half hour later, at 4:37 p.m., calls for injuries starting pouring in.
Over the radio there was a call for a “61-year-old female with burns to her body.”
Almost immediately there was another call, “We had another burn victim, 53-year-old male.”
At 5:05 p.m., a female officer desperately trying to direct people away from Lahaina town went car to car with this dire message: “The town is on fire. There are multiple people who have died.”
Then over the radio someone said, “We got people trapped. Front Street.”
At 5:11 p.m., radio traffic indicated a first responder had been seriously hurt.
“I need medics right now. I got a fireman down!”
At 5:34 p.m., updates from the field continued, “We’re still like a parking lot over here.”
At the same time, multiple ambulances could be seen going toward Lahaina, rushing patients to the hospital then returning to the scene to pick up more patients and head back to the hospital again.
Meanwhile, calls for help continued: “78-year-old male. Burns to his back and legs.”
At 5:36 p.m., an officer ordering evacuations tells a resident, “There’s fire right down the road. It’s taken Mala Wharf already.” Eight minutes later, a radio call offers this additional insight: “Front Street on fire all the way down to Market Street. All the houses are on fire. It’s not passable.”
Meanwhile, an officer directing traffic has a chilling update for a firefighter: “People are dying.”
Questions over response linger
The information is detailed — and all of it should have been relayed to officials working in the county’s Emergency Operations Center, said former MPD Assistant Chief Clyde Holokai.
HNN Investigates asked him to explain what it’s like in the EOC.
You have the police radios going on. So you can hear firsthand what’s going on in the field with our officers. You’re there with the heads of every agency,” he said.
“You can hear what’s going on with the fire department. With the medics.”
But the evening of the disaster, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said this on HNN’s 6 p.m. news: “I am happy to report the road to Lahaina is back open.”
He appeared oblivious to the horror unfolding on the west side of the island.
All the while, officers along with other first responders risked their lives, repeatedly crossing fire lines to pull others to safety. About 6:40 p.m. on Aug. 8, video shows officers driving through what looked like a hellscape with bright orange flames burning all around them.
At 6:41 p.m. those officers reached a coffee shop where about 15 people were trapped.
One of the officers could be heard yelling, “Come out! Come out ! Come out!” The first responders piled people into their vehicles and rushed to escape before fire overtook their SUV.
HNN asked Holokai if there was any reason why someone in the EOC wouldn’t know what was happening in the field on the day of the disaster.
He responded, “No there shouldn’t be any reason.”
At least 99 people died in the wildfire, now the deadliest in the US in more than a century.
HNN asked the Bissen Administration this week again how the mayor and emergency administrators didn’t know about casualties in Lahaina until a day after the wildfire.
There was no response to those questions.
The state Attorney General’s office has hired a private organization to conduct an independent investigation to assess the emergency response.
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