The day after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century destroyed a seaside community on Maui, the barrage of 911 calls didn't stop: Reports of missing people, stranded family members and confused tourists trapped without food or water lit up the emergency lines every few minutes, interspersed with reports of new fires starting and older ones flaring back up.
The 911 recordings from the morning and early afternoon of Aug. 9 were the third batch of calls released by the Maui Police Department in response to a public record request. They show how first responders and emergency dispatchers — many of whom had already worked long hours during what was likely the most harrowing experience of their lives — continued to be hindered by limited staffing and widespread communication failures.
Several callers reached out to 911 throughout the morning asking for wellness checks for relatives or friends they couldn’t reach. Cell communications were still down in some areas. Authorities told people to call the nonemergency police number to file missing person reports or so that police could check with the Red Cross and other volunteers who had registered evacuees at the shelters.
But callers who couldn’t get through on the nonemergency line, turned to 911.
“My house is in Lahaina, in the fire area. And I have not been able to contact my husband. Is there any way that I can get someone to drive by the house?” a woman asked just after 1:30 p.m.
Another caller at about 9:45 a.m. called to report that his wife was missing.
“She should be in Lahaina. She went to work yesterday,” the caller told a dispatcher.
In one case, a 911 caller reported that a family missing their 15-year-old son had been “ignored.”
The operator answers were the same each time. Emergency responders weren’t able to help find missing people because they were still trying to get everyone to safety, still working hotspots and responding to fires. There weren't enough officers to do house checks or wellness checks, but most of the town had been evacuated to the shelters.
They told callers to wait for cellphone communications to return and to keep trying the nonemergency line.
“I’m really sorry, that’s all I can give you right now,” one operator said.
Maui County and police officials did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Saturday.
Callers turned to 911 when information was scarce or when they heard contradicting information.
A handful of residents called to ask if the Lahaina Bypass had reopened, saying they had heard an announcement on the radio that it had opened for traffic. Emergency dispatchers repeatedly batted down the misinformation.
Early in the morning dispatchers rebuked some callers asking how to get to the airport, or what roads would be open, saying the line was for emergencies only.
One caller retold how he and his family while evacuating had grabbed an elderly couple to help them also get out of Lahaina. But he said the husband had gone with him and the wife had gone with his uncle, and they could not contact each other to reunite the couple.
“We don’t know what to do with him,” the caller said.
“You can bring him to one of the emergency shelters so he can rest and get something to drink,” the dispatcher told him, adding that once communications were back up, the volunteers there could help find his wife.
Dispatchers were forced to deal with sometimes impossible situations, trying to reassure people while also knowing resources were scarce.
An exhausted Lahaina survivor, walking along the highway south of town, called asking for help just before 1 p.m.
“Our house is all burned down and everyone is just passing us by. We’re dying out here. There’s like 12 of us, all like walking along the Pali,” he said, using a nickname for a coastal, cliffside portion of the Honoapiilani Highway. He asked for someone to pick the group up, saying he feared dying of heat exhaustion.
The dispatcher said there were no buses to come get them, but they could send ambulances if they needed.
Just before 11 a.m., someone from another island called on behalf of some Lahaina residents who lost their home and vehicles but had fled up the mountain, away from the burning town.
“She's got her husband and their two children and then some neighbors,” the caller said. The group was safe from the fire, but had no food and water and no way to evacuate.
“I'm going to let the fire department know,” the dispatcher said, “but we are really short on resources. And they're going to see what they can do.”
At that point, fire crews were still trying to extinguish the flames that had destroyed much of Lahaina, as well as fighting three other fires in and around the towns of Kula and Kihei. People living near those blazes continued to report flames at their properties and fires reigniting like they had in Lahaina.
In one case, a 911 caller reported seeing flames and hotspots on their property and trying to put them out with a garden hose that was rapidly losing pressure. Another reported that her husband and son were fighting a fire that had broken out on their ranch in the Upcountry region of Maui, but they feared they’d need help from a helicopter.
Some areas were still dotted with potentially dangerous downed power lines. One person who called several times in the morning reported that lines were sparking and smoking at her home in the Kula area and she and her husband were unable to turn the power off. They eventually did so with the help of a friend that worked at the power company.
Callers had trouble controlling their frustration at times. A woman called in tears saying her family had left their resort when the power went out the previous day.
“We slept in our car. We can't get ahold of the hotel. My medication, my car keys, everything is there. My kid has autism. His medication is there. I just don’t know what to do,” she said.
The dispatcher offered to have a medic sent out for the woman’s son and also suggested she try to have her doctor call in a prescription. But she said no one was being let back into Lahaina.
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho, Lauer reported from Philadelphia and Whitehurst reported from Washington. Associated Press journalists Corey Williams in Detroit and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Hawaii, contributed to this report.