The tragic fires in Hawaii took many lives, but many others were saved by heroic individuals who responded to strangers in need.
The number of victims who are known to have perished in the Maui wildfires continues to rise. More than 140 people are confirmed dead, with about a thousand people still missing. The devastation was especially bad in the historic town of Lahaina, where the Catholic church of Maria Lanakila miraculously survived. Most of the rest of Lahaina was razed to the ground.
Amid the unimaginable tragedy, stories are beginning to emerge of ordinary people who put their lives at risk to save others. Here are five such stories.
Shaun ‘Buge’ Saribay
As the wildfire burned out of control, Buge Saribay found himself trapped on a street just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. His wife and stepdaughters had already fled to a relative’s house. Determined to survive for his family’s sake, Saribay led three tenants and some others to the Lahaina United Methodist Church. He had recently helped to renovate the building and remembered that there were water outlets there.
Fortunately, Saribay and his companions located a number of hoses nearby. Buge Saribay then led a desperate effort to thoroughly soak the ground around them as the fire rapidly closed in on all sides. Using the hoses and some buckets the group was somehow able to hold back the blaze in spite of treacherous winds and scorching embers.
As he later wrote in an Instagram post:
many times near death but survived n made sure ppl around was taken cared of
Buge Saribay recorded a dramatic video of these events in case he did not survive. He was later reunited with his wife and daughters.
As Benny Reinicke was fleeing from the fire, he encountered two women in trouble. Lani Williams and her mom, Sincerity Mirkovich, had tried to escape the wildfire in their car, but traffic had been gridlocked. Their only recourse was to try and make it to the Pacific Ocean as burning embers fell all around them.
Unfortunately, Lani’s mother had limited mobility and needed a walker. When they finally reached a seawall, it was clear that Sincerity Mirkovich would not be able to make it over the wall to safety. That’s when a stranger (Reinicke) came to their rescue.
“Auntie, put your weight on me. I got you,” he told the elderly woman. Reinicke carried Sincerity Mirkovich over the seawall on his back. He then remained with the mother and daughter in the ocean for more than eight hours until it was safe.
The two women only learned the name of their rescuer when they were reunited with him on Good Morning America.
“There was no warning. There was no alarm. The cellphone towers were burned,” Christina Lovitt told a CNN reporter.
According to Lovitt, the Coast Guard was not able get their ships close enough to shore to rescue those who had reached the ocean. The boat captain steered her 10-foot skiff toward the beach as “hundreds and hundreds of explosions” were going off.
Lovitt and a partner were able to locate two small children, 5 and 6 years old, and bring them out to a waiting Coast Guard vessel. They then went back to try to save more people, but by that time the fire had grown even worse and in spite of their intensive search efforts, they could not find any more survivors.
“I’m feeling terrible that we didn’t get more people out,” Lovitt told another reporter.
A family of seven from Fresno, California, was visiting Lahaina when the wildfires struck. They made it to the beach, but the high winds meant that they would not survive there. That’s when Jubee Bedoya came along and urged the family to follow him into the water.
A drifting piece of plywood became a makeshift life raft for the group. They all clung to the plywood, with the family’s two-year-old son tightly holding Jubee’s neck. “It was crazy,” Bedoya told a reporter. For more than two hours they floated in the sea with the fire raging, until a Coast Guard rescue boat was finally able to reach them.
Like most residents of Lahaina, Jubee has lost everything, but he was happy to learn that the family had safely reached Fresno. “Give them my love, tell them I am so happy they are safe and have made it home,” he told a family relative.
A resident of Lahaina for the last five years, Randy Courtemanche was planning to escape the fires with his son, Christian, when the two became separated. Fearing that his son had been killed, he went back to the two-building apartment complex where they lived. He decided “I’m going back to the fire and I’m going to f—ing be a fireman,” he told ABC news in an interview.
Courtemanche used water and 20 fire extinguishers that he “stole” from across the street to put out spot fires as they sprang up. “I just wanted to save as much as I could,” he said, regretting that he could not save a third building because “I didn’t have no more water, I ran out.”
After the fires, Courtemanche stayed at the site for two days, “sleeping in ash.” Then Christian showed up. He had come to look for his father. “When I saw (my son) and found out that he was alive,” Randy Courtemanche recalled, “I was like, ‘Thank you, Jesus, I love you so much!’”
No doubt there are many other stories of heroism not yet known and countless others that will never be known to us, at least in this life. But the examples of these five heroes will hopefully inspire many to donate to Maui relief efforts and offer prayer and support to those who have suffered the loss of loved ones, homes, and livelihoods.