The historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii was lush, peaceful, and friendly. The devastation of the wind and fire that destroyed it was sudden, terrifying, and horrible.
To many, the disaster was shocking video from 5,000 miles away—an event seen on the news.
But to some, loved ones and friends afar, it was a period of acute uncertainty, fear, and grief.
Most of us are in the first category. Jim Economy of Vineland is in the second.
To him, the wind and flames were a period of unimaginable distress while fearing the worst, but ultimately feeling the relief of a close call that would have cost him his family.
Jim, 67, is one of possibly other
local residents for whom Lahaina could easily have been the ultimate tragedy. But with a fast-acting son and his friends, and an ex-wife with a neighbor braving the fire to rescue her from sure death, it wasn’t.
“They lost everything, but thank God they are alive and safe,” he said.
Jim’s ex-wife, Ann Marie Economy, 64, a Millville teacher for many years, took a vacation to Hawaii a little over two years ago and, without hesitation, decided its charms and peace provided the place she wanted to live for the rest of her life, and she moved.
Jim and Ann Marie’s only child, Andrew, who turns 30 next month, took a trip to visit her for Christmas in 2021. Jim took him to the airport.
“I knew darn well when I put him on that plane, he wouldn’t be coming back,” Jim related.
Andrew moved to an apartment 10 blocks from his mother in Lahaina, managed a fitness center and enjoyed an idyllic life that included living a three-minute walk from the harbor. Ann Marie had taken a teaching job.
“I visited Lahaina three times in the last year and a half,” Jim said. “It was just picture-perfect: Restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops. I would get my coffee, go down to the water, and sit.
“There was a happiness in that place that will never come back,”
The contrast between what that place was and what it is now is surreal.
The three Maui wildfires, which broke out August 8, are the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, and Lahaina suffered the largest fire by far. At least 2,200 buildings were destroyed or damaged there, mostly residential, but the Keawe business center also lies in ruins. (Lahaina’s population was 12,700.)
Winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south were Andrew’s first warning of danger.
“He and his friends saw the roof of his house blow off, then his neighbor’s also,” Jim said.
“They immediately jumped into their pickup truck and drove to safety.”
The fires swept Lahaina in the middle of the night eastern time. When Jim arose early, the text from Andrew was there. “Dad, text me when you get up.”
Andrew told him to turn on the news, while also making sure his dad knew he was safe.
“What about your mom, I asked him,” Jim told me with a quaver in his voice. “I don’t know, came the answer.”
Andrew, fortunately, had cell phone service, but where Ann Marie ended up had none for a day-and-a-half.
It was an agonizing 36 hours of not knowing if she was alive or dead.
“The relief I felt was overwhelming when I saw her name pop up on my phone,” Jim said, still emotional. “By the grace of God, she was alive.”
Ann Marie had broken her leg hiking two weeks earlier and couldn’t walk. She lived on the second floor of her condo. She called for help to no avail. When she managed to push open her door, smoke and fumes kept her back. She thought she would die.
“I could just see her there screaming for her life,” Jim told me, choking up. “I keep hearing her screams now.”
A friend of Ann Marie’s named Millie was fleeing Lahaina on her bicycle but ignored her personal danger and stopped to check on her friend.
Millie stuck a filter mask on Ann Marie’s face and carried her out. Ann Marie had only the clothes on her back as she escaped with little time to spare…and she also had her car keys in her hand.
The two women fled in the car, ahead of the conflagration.
“She was minutes from death” Jim said, “If Millie hadn’t come by, I’d be planning a funeral.”
The eventual death toll in Lahaina will likely never be known. Some victims have been found in the rubble by family members; many have been found dead in their homes, some in bed. Forensic analysis and cadaver teams are accompanying the search and rescue teams. Some families have supplied DNA from those missing.
The hundred or more confirmed dead and about a thousand unaccounted for at press time, shockingly show how fortunate the Economy family was.
“Andrew told me ‘It’s a war zone, Dad, there’s nothing left of Lahaina,’ ” Jim said.
“He has trouble talking about it,” Jim added. “He says there’s a sense of death and destruction everywhere.”
For the thousands who survived the fire, their experience is only beginning. They mostly lost everything they had. They are in shelters, Airbnb’s, hotels, and in homes where they were kindly welcomed. FEMA has begun distributing money and supplies.
Hawaii governor Josh Green summed it up when he told CBS News, “The goal is for the displaced people to leave these shelters and go into stable housing, which is going to take a long, long time.”
Ann Marie and Andrew lost everything in the wildfire except their lives. Both have to start over, which will be a very long haul. Ann Marie will be able to return to work as a teacher once her leg heals and her school reopens. Andrew is now without a job, his fitness center burned down, and his benefits will be ending soon.
Throughout our interviews, Jim viewed the displaced people as one group and insisted this story include information on how people can help everybody in need (see box).
“Most of the people on the island need help, not just my family,” he said. “Their homes are gone, their cars are gone, their jobs are gone. What are they going to do?”
Andrew’s friend Abby Rubin has started a GoFundMe account to support her dear friend and his mother. The fundraising goal is $10,000 and, at press time, donations were growing.
“It’s the names I see on the Go Fund Me page: People I don’t even know, people who I haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years, the generosity overwhelms me,” Jim concluded.
Jim is a Vineland native, human resources director for Bridor USA (baked goods producer at the Industrial Park), and active in his community.
“Many people know and really respect Jim. He is a nice man, and he is hurting for his family,” said SNJ Today CEO Ken Pustizzi.
Jim expects Ann Marie and Andrew will rebuild their lives in Hawaii. He said he hopes to retire and visit Andrew there frequently. He hopes his son will marry and have children and he can go as a grandfather.
That’s the way life goes on.
Ways to Help:
The link to the GoFundMe page is: https://tinyurl.com/4beyjjxr (or use QR code to get there).
On the page, there are also links to sites for Maui relief.