United Airlines 777 Line Training Manager Capt. Vince Eckelkamp did not have his captain’s hat on when he arrived at Kahului Airport in Maui after a harrowing drive through Lahaina just hours before the historic town burned to the ground. Vince, his wife Kathy, and their daughter Kallie were vacationing on Maui, but as the fire spread, they hoped to join other desperate passengers for a flight to Denver.
Kathy recalls waking up in the middle of the night. The hotel’s power had gone out around 4am, and it sounded like “the surf was right outside our window,” Kathy says. In fact, the source of the noise was Hurricane Dora’s high winds. Rather than stay in a hotel with no power, the Central Park family decided to go to the other side of the island, optimistic that they would find power. It was only when they began driving to Kahului Airport that they realized they had no GPS and no cell phone service.
As they moved along the road through Lahaina, it was clear that they were facing more than a power outage. It was, Kathy says, “like driving through a snow globe or a vortex.” Downed trees lined the road. Broken branches, roof shingles, sand, and debris were everywhere. As the electric company worked on downed power lines, police directed traffic along Front Street in historic Lahaina. It took the family almost two hours to traverse Lahaina, a distance of 2.5 miles.
Just five hours later, Lahaina burned to the ground. About 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed due to fires believed to have been ignited by downed electric lines and propelled by powerful hurricane winds. As of mid-September, more than 7,000 residents were still displaced.
Arriving at the airport, the Eckelkamp family was optimistic. Their plane’s pilots were there, and it appeared that their 8pm departure would be on time. As evening neared, however, it became clear that the flight would be delayed or canceled because the rest of the flight crew had been unable to reach the airport. Vince offered to augment the crew, but at this point they did not need a 777 pilot.
Pilots and flight crews must follow regulations that mandate precise duty and rest times, and a lack of flight attendants delayed the departure until the following day at noon. “To reset the pilots’ clocks, they needed twelve hours,” says Vince, who joined the hundreds of people spending the night in the airport since there were no hotel rooms available.
On the airport floor, the Eckelkamps spoke with families whose relatives had lost homes to the fire, and one woman shared photos of her burned-out rental car. “The true aloha spirit was really everywhere,” says Kathy. “Everybody was hugging each other. Everybody was in shock.” They slept on the crowded floor and the next morning, Kathy saw a police officer and asked about Lahaina. “It’s gone,” he replied. The officer’s partner had lost his house. Front Street was no more. “It could have very easily been us, swimming in the water or worse,” says Vince.
Like the officer and other first responders, airport staff worked hard to help passengers even as they worried how their own family members and homes were faring.
The next day, the flight experienced further delays and Vince learned it would not be able to depart unless he was still willing to step up. The other pilot had approximately 20 minutes left on his duty clock, and so Vince was asked if he could fly the plane. Happy to be in a position to help, Vince enabled 300 people leave Maui by flying the 777 to San Francisco while dressed in shorts, sneakers, and a polo shirt.
A month after the fire that ravaged Lahaina, the death toll is 115 people, 47 of whom have yet to be identified. DNA testing and forensic analysis continues on the unidentified human remains. Though the Lahaina fire is 100 percent contained, the Kula fire is 96 percent contained and the Olinda fire is 90 percent contained, according to Maui Recovers. The cost to rebuild West Maui is projected to exceed $5 billion. Many locals as well as state officials share concerns that outsiders will buy up damaged properties.
Should tourists return to Maui? This question surfaces repeatedly in the media, and celebrities with ties to the island have weighed in with different opinions. “I think people need to go back to Maui to support the economy,” says Vince. Much of Maui was not impacted by the fires, and tourism is the foundation of the island’s economy. Lahaina remains off-limits, but effective Oct. 8, travel to West Maui will be allowed.
To support Maui communities in need, consider donating to the Maui Strong Fund at the Hawai’i Community Foundation: https://www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/maui-strong