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How a Maui firefighter saved trapped colleagues as the Lahaina wildfire melted their truck

Maui firefighters on surviving wildfire
Deadly Lahaina wildfire consumed fire engine as Maui firefighters barely escaped 13:17

The wildfire in August that ripped through the Hawaiian town of Lahaina was America's deadliest in a hundred years. At least 99 people were killed. 

You may recall the pictures of people jumping into the Pacific Ocean to escape as the fire burned most of the historic town in a matter of hours. But there is an untold story about a group of firefighters who were also trapped while fighting fast-moving flames.

Tonight, you will hear from those Maui county firefighters about two of the worst hours of their lives. They took a stand to save their hometown without the thing they depend on the most – water. 

The morning began with blue skies and winds gusting nearly 60 miles an hour. 

Aina Kohler: I was just watching the ocean, and watching what was happening on the ocean, and just never seen that before.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What was happening on the ocean?

Aina Kohler: It just was, like, froth, it was completely white. And there was, like, whirlwinds that was-- sat out there for over an hour.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Like, that had been whipped-up?

Aina Kohler: Yeah. Yeah, the winds were just nuts.

Firefighter Aina Kohler drives Engine 3. She grew up in Lahaina - the once postcard perfect town of 13,000, tucked between the West Maui range and sparkling Pacific. In Hawaiian 'Lahaina' means 'cruel sun.' But on August 8th it was the wind - whipped up by a hurricane 500 miles offshore…that showed no mercy. 

crosses in Hawaii
Crosses have been set up in Hawaii for those who died in the Lahaina wildfire 60 Minutes

Aina Kohler: We're used to wind, but we weren't used to that kinda wind. I looked out my window and there was, like, a giant kiddie pool, like, one of the bigger ones, flying through the air, like, 100 feet up.

At 6:30 that morning, a resident recorded this video after a power line fell and ignited the dry grass that covers much of Lahaina's hillside.

At most there are 17 firefighters on duty in West Maui. Kohler's crew of four relieved the firefighters that first responded.

Aina Kohler: We had-- we had contained it, mean-- meaning it wasn't getting any bigger. So now we were just putting water on all the hot spots to make sure that it was-- everything was fully out, just dousing everything in water.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How long were you out there?

Aina Kohler: We were-- probably till, like, 2:00? and then we went on some calls in the neighborhood right next door: downed poles, and-- that were leaning on houses, and downed lines.

Around three o'clock…Aina Kohler's crew was called back to the area of the morning brushfire. This is police video. The hillside was on fire again. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: How fast was the fire moving at that point?

Aina Kohler: Um I couldn't tell. I could tell how fast the smoke is moving, and it was kinda, like, not even going up, it was going sideways.

The cause of the afternoon fire is still unknown. But mike walker had warned Hawaiian lawmakers about the danger of overgrown grass here for five years. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So how much of this is native to Hawaii? 

Mike Walker: None of it.

Walker is in charge of fire protection for Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources. The type of grass he showed us is from Africa. It was brought here a century ago for cattle grazing because it grows fast even with little water.

Dry grass in Hawaii
Dry grass in Hawaii 60 Minutes

Sharyn Alfonsi: What can you do to make sure that this isn't a tinder box?

Mike Walker: Well, a lotta the land right now is just unmanaged. It's either folks don't have the finances, or it's not economically worth it to work the land, or they're just banking the land for future development. I think you can see what happens when we do nothing. 

On August 8th, a few minutes after 3 o'clock, wind carried burning grass toward homes half a mile away.

Keahi Ho: And by the time I reported that over the radio, um, every structure I could see was on fire.

Six-foot-four Keahi Ho is based in Lahaina on Ladder 3. He mans its biggest weapon— a cannon that shoots 2,000 gallons of water a minute. 

Keahi Ho: It would just blow away. You know? Um I could stick it right in a window and put out that room, but the whole rest of the house is on fire. And then every other house is on fire.

Then – something he'd never experienced left him stunned - the hydrants started to run dry.

Keahi Ho: It was a real low point for me, 'cause—um, we just-- I knew that we had lost, you know? That we were gonna really-- this was gonna be worse than we could imagine. 

The county's Department of Water Supply told us the fire caused more than 2,000 pipe breaks…bleeding water out of the system.

Keahi Ho: And it was just somewhere around there that I heard that the, where my mom's office is, which is a long ways away from where I was, it was on fire. And then to know that it was there and to know that I was running out of water, I was like, "Man. It's over. Like, we're gonna keep trying, but there's-- it's over."

This was the view from inside a fire truck. Black skies lit by an inferno that stretched for blocks. Firefighters didn't have the water or the crews to stop it.

Residents say they never received an evacuation order. So by 4 p.m., police were racing around town to get people out

At the same time, reinforcements started to arrive from other fire stations across Maui, including 26-year-old Tanner Mosher. He was with Engine 6.

Tanner Mosher
Tanner Mosher 60 Minutes

Tanner Mosher: Once you got into the smoke, it was like five feet of visibility, maybe ten if you're lucky.

Captain Jay Fujita: It's like a blowtorch being blown at you. The heat was just so intense.

Captain Jay Fujita has been a firefighter almost as long as Tanner Mosher has been alive. He commanded Engine 1 to take a position a few blocks beyond that wall of fire…next to Mosher's crew. At 4:30, streets were clogged with the cars of residents and tourists. This was a 911 operator…

911 Operator: "You guys need to leave. If you can't- if you can't drive away, get out of the car and run."

The abandoned cars and a web of downed power lines trapped the eight firefighters and their two engines.

Captain Jay Fujita: Once we determined we wouldn't be able to escape the-- street that we were on-- we pulled a line to kinda protect ourselves from the fire. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Just to keep the fire away from you?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah. But the hose burnt. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you don't have a hose--

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah--

Sharyn Alfonsi: --and you can't get out?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah. Our only course of action was to shelter in place.

Inside the engines, they relied on air tanks to breathe.

Tanner Mosher: You know we were just conserving our air as much as possible and just sitting in our seats. We were just fixating on making it out, lasting. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So at that point, it's surviving?

Tanner Mosher: It's surviving for sure. I mean, we could see metal melting in front of our eyes.

Captain Jay Fujita: I had texted my wife. I told her I love her and to pass the message on to the rest of my family, that I love them. That we're stuck and we might not be able to make it out. But it was too hot in the truck, so my phone wasn't working. So the message didn't go through.

Tanner Mosher: I just remember bein' like, "I can't give up yet." Like, "I gotta-- I gotta do somethin'." And so I remember looking out the window, and all of a sudden I could see-- Engine 1 skeeter, mini one.

The skeeter is a small fire truck…like this one. Mosher jumped into it alone to see if he could clear a path for the engines to get out. Mosher says when he realized the skeeter couldn't drive through the barricade of cars, he made the snap decision to drive over them to find help.

Tanner Mosher: And so I just remember putting it in four-wheel drive and I launched the barricade…and I kind of planed for a second and I was like 'oh, ok I made it over'. And at the end of the lot was a rock wall, so I launched over the rock wall and definitely caught some power lines. So I would just be driving through the smoke, not seeing anything. So I'm just, like, driving through, dodging stuff.

His truck was damaged…but down the road he saw the lights of a police car.

Tanner Mosher: I just remember leaving most of my stuff in that truck, getting out, running to the cop, and just telling him like, "Hey, I got guys in there. They need help. They're dying." And so he's just like, "Hey, you can-- can take my squad vehicle. Just come back." And so I-- I hopped in there. Just started driving back into the smoke, where I knew I came from or remembered coming from.

As Mosher made his way back, Captain Fujita realized the fire truck was no longer offering protection. 

Captain Jay Fujita: I noticed-- our windshield failing. It started to fail.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Your windshield failing? What do you mean?

Captain Jay Fujita: So the-- windshield is made up of-- two panes of glass with a film in the middle. And that film was, you know, delaminating and bubbling in the windshield. So--

Sharyn Alfonsi: So it's melting around you?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah. So we got out of the truck and we all sheltered behind the engine. And we heard-- like a chirping of a siren. But because of the smoke we didn't-- couldn't see where it was coming from. But finally we seen-- a police SUV show up.

It was Tanner Mosher. Seven firefighters in gear crammed inside the SUV Mosher was driving, including his captain…Mike Mullalley who was unconscious from smoke inhalation. He's on the far left in this picture taken before the fire. 

Tanner Mosher: He was in the car, the SUV, with the door open, and his boots were h-- were hanging, but they weren't touching the ground.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So they're just holding onto captain?

Tanner Mosher: Yeah, so all the guys that were able to reach him they were just locked on.

With his captain's legs dangling out, Mosher says he jumped the loaded police SUV to safety. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did Tanner Mosher save your life that day?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yes. He-- he saved all of our lives.

Sharyn Alfonsi: He's a young guy.

Captain Jay Fujita: You can't teach that kind of-- heroism. He just had it in him.

Once clear, the firefighters performed CPR and stabilized captain Mullalley.

Captain Jay Fujita: And then all seven of us went back to work.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You kept fighting fires?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yep. All the way to the next morning.

Aina Kohler
Aina Kohler Courtesy Aina Kohler

With little water there was little they could do to save homes. So as the sun set the firefighter's mission shifted to saving anyone they could, anyway they could. Aina Kohler ditched her fire engine and used a pickup to snake through the burning debris downtown. A local, she knew every way in and out.

Aina Kohler: There were some people in their cars stuck down there, not knowing which way to get out. And so I would jump in their car and I would drive their car out for them. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So everybody's trying to get out, and you're going in.

Aina Kohler: Yeah.

Kohler, a mother of two, said her family was able to escape, but like 16 other firefighters in Lahaina, she lost her home.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you ever think, like, "Why me?"

Aina Kohler: No. I was like, "Every oth-- everything else is burned down, why not my house?" You know, I didn't want to be feeling like I couldn't defend, you know, the entire town, and if my house was still standing, I'd probably have even more guilt.

Once the sparkling jewel of Maui, this is Lahaina today…its treasures now a sea of ash and charred metal. More than 2,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Hawaii's attorney general is investigating the cause of the afternoon fire and how the water system failed. Already, in the hills above Lahaina…the flammable grass that set the stage for this disaster is growing back. Captain Jay Fujita took us to the street where his crew made its stand.

Sharyn Alfonsi and Captain Jay Fujita
Captain Jay Fujita shows Sharyn Alfonsi the remains of his engine after the Maui wildfire.  60 Minutes

Sharyn Alfonsi: Your engine was right there?

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah. Right there.

Those ashes, in front of us, are the outline of where fire consumed what was once Engine 1. 

Captain Jay Fujita: It's kinda, like-- like, a grave, you know, coming back to see this. After we left, it was still hot enough and bad enough to burn the engine.

Sharyn Alfonsi: To nothing.

Captain Jay Fujita: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you think about the fight now, when you look back on it?

Tanner Mosher: I think we all feel-- wish we could've done more. We made it out, and we're grateful. But at the same time, there-- there's still people that didn't make it out.

Not far from where the Lahaina fire began…is a line of crosses, one for each person who died. The 100th victim was identified last week. But by our count – the Maui County Fire Department rescued at least 200 people from the fire. 

Produced by Guy Campanile and Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Erin DuCharme. Edited by Matthew Lev.

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