Teen Describes Family’s 5 Hours in Sea during Maui Fire; Escape by Car Impossible as Flames Closed in

Courtesy of Noah Tomkinson
Tina Tomkinson, the mother of Noah Tomkinson, is seen in the sea while escaping from a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 8.

LAHAINA, Hawaii — A 19-year-old man and his family survived the flames of wildfire on the island of Maui in Hawaii by jumping into the sea and spending five hours in the water. Noah Tomkinson, who cheered up his younger brother and kept his mother warm while spending time in the sea told The Yomiuri Shimbun about the scary moments when the fire was closing in on them in darkness.

On Aug. 8, when the fire broke out, Tomkinson was at home in Lahaina with his mother, Tina, 46, and his brother, Milo, 13.

Tomkinson noticed something unusual from the morning of the day. Outside his home, strong winds in excess of 100 kph were blowing due to a hurricane that was passing the island. The whole neighborhood and nearby areas lost power. Just after noon, the wind became so strong that pieces of roofs could be seen flying in the air outside the window. Tomkinson got a bag and packed as much clothing and water as he could for possible evacuation.

At around 3:30 p.m., he smelled something burning. In 10 minutes, the area around his house had become full of smoke. Grabbing the bag, Tomkinson left home with Tina and Milo by a car. But the road was too crowded to move forward smoothly. And the fire was closing in from behind.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Noah Tomkinson

Tomkinson said it felt like they were being chased by the fire as trees burst into flame one after another. After a 1½-hour drive that normally would have taken just five minutes, they were surrounded by the fire near a church on Front Street, which stretches along the sea.

They decided to abandon the car. The normally calm streets of Lahaina were engulfed in fire. It was too hot for them to stay there.

They ran between houses, descended a rock wall and jumped into the ocean at about 5:30 p.m.

“We’re like, ‘[We] can’t go anywhere,’ so we jumped over the rock wall,” Tomkinson said.

There were about 15 people in the water who had also jumped into the sea to escape from fire. Beyond the smoke, red flames seemed to be approaching the sea.

The three of them made their way out to water that came up to Tomkinson’s chest. Each wave that came in splashed saltwater into the face of his younger brother Milo. Seeing the worry on the 13-year-old’s face, Tomkinson tried to cheered the boy up by telling him that they would be OK.

The sun went down, and the water got cold. Tomkinson flattened himself against Tina to keep her warm as his mother shivered in the chilly sea. He said that he was so scared that he would have broken down if his family had not been with him.

The smoke spread out even over the sea, and the air was filled with the smell of burning. Covering his nose and mouth with a shirt he had in his bag, Tomkinson endured the severe situation.

At around 10:30 p.m. — after five hours in the sea — they came out of the water, deciding that the time was right because the fire appeared to have slowed down. Tomkinson saw burned-out cars that were left in the street. He found an unburned one to use as a temporary shelter for his family.

At 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 9, they were rescued with no injuries by firefighters.

Tomkinson had taken a video while they spent time in the sea. The video, edited by a friend and posted on social media, attracted attention and responses from many people.

Tomkinson said, “In terms of the long run, I want to see the town rebuilt with as much input from the local people who have lived here for generations as possible.”