HONOLULU (AP) — An officer sprinted from house to house in the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii, alerting people to the approaching inferno. Another coughed and swore as he drove through thick smoke past burning buildings with people he rescued crammed in the back seat. With no ambulance available, one officer offered to bring a severely burned man to a hospital.
While police frantically tried to save people from what would be the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, they also faced another challenge: keeping people from heading back toward the flames, newly released video from body cameras shows.
“No more waiting! Too much people have died already!” one frustrated officer shouted at a line of stopped cars. “Turn around and get out of Lahaina! Stop being stubborn and get out of Lahaina now!”
The roughly 20 hours of video depict the actions of Maui police officers on Aug. 8, when strong winds from a hurricane passing far to the south drove flames that quickly leveled Lahaina and killed at least 99 people. Authorities initially released 16 minutes of clips during a news conference Monday, before providing the rest to The Associated Press in response to a public records request.
The video helps provide a fuller picture of how the disaster unfolded and officers’ efforts to react. Earlier this month Maui County provided AP with 911 call recordings in response to an open records request.
It includes chaotic footage of officers north and south of town trying to block people — residents desperate to learn the fates of their homes or relatives, or tourists just looking for a place to sleep — from entering the burning area.
A man on a motorcycle tried to skirt police cars blocking the road into town. Stuck in traffic, a dozen people got out to ask what they should do or if they could abandon their vehicles and walk into town. “Absolutely not,” an officer responded.
One officer sat in a patrol vehicle and watched as his own home burned.
At another point, late at night, two officers decided that one of them should go back to the police station to gather additional ammunition — not because the bullets might be dangerous in a fire, as the station has thick concrete walls, but because they feared what the coming days might bring.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be dealing with civil unrest,” one said.
Another clip showed an officer’s arrival at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf shop at a supermarket on Front Street, an area that was devastated by the fire. He found 15 people inside.
“Come out! Come out!” he shouted. “Come with me!”
Some got in their own cars, while others climbed into the back of his patrol vehicle. Saying “Get in, uncle!” — a term of respect in Hawaii — he shoved one last person inside before driving off toward refuge at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Another officer found a badly burned man at a shopping center and put him in the back seat of his patrol car. “I’ll just take you straight to the hospital. That sound good?” the officer asked.
“Yeah,” the man responded.
The videos also show officers checking in with each other about their own families. Some responders discussed a coworker who worried that his son, a firefighter, had a medical emergency during the response.
People who made it to safety have recounted running into barricades and roads that were blocked by flames and downed utility poles. One video showed an officer tying a tow strap to a metal gate blocking a dirt road escape route, while residents used a saw to cut it open so cars could get through.
At times officers appeared flummoxed by traffic backups at dramatic moments. One patrol vehicle pulled through thick smoke, past a burning vehicle and onto Lahainaluna Road, only to encounter a long line of stopped cars.
“We have got to get all these cars down Lahainaluna Road. The fire is right next to the cars. We can’t see,” one of the two officers in the car told dispatchers, later repeatedly wondering aloud, “Why are these cars not moving?”
The videos also reflect confusion among residents about where they were supposed to go, even after most of the damage had been done.
One man, a resident of an apartment building downtown, spoke with an officer in a parking lot where his truck had run out of gas. The officer suggested he stay put because he’d be safe there, but the man had no food and asked if he could walk to town or to the shelter at the civic center.
“It’s dangerous man,” the officer said. “There’s power lines everywhere, poles, debris. It’s not safe in there.”
“I don’t even know where to go from here,” the man responded.
During Monday’s news conference, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said his department faced a deadline to release the footage in response to an open records request and wanted to provide some context for what people would see before it came out.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It may have been sparked by downed power lines that ignited dry, invasive grasses. An AP investigation found the answer may lie in an overgrown gully beneath Hawaiian Electric Co. power lines and something that harbored smoldering embers from an initial fire that burned in the morning and then rekindled in high winds that afternoon.
After warning residents to evacuate during the morning fires, one clip showed, an officer regrouped with colleagues minutes later and expressed concern that they could reignite and spread in the wind.
“The thing is, could start smoldering again,” he said, pointing toward an area of blackened ground. “Like, you see this kind of stuff right over here? I don’t want it — the wind gonna kick up, hop right over.”
Lauer reported from Philadelphia, Johnson from Seattle and Boone from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press reporters Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis; Christopher L. Keller in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Sara Cline in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Hannah Fingerhut in Des Moines, Iowa; Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu; and James Pollard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report. Ahmed and Pollard are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.