LAHAINA, Hawaii — Three survivors of the deadly wildfires that ravaged Maui said Wednesday that when the inferno erupted, the main escape route out of town was partly blocked by Hawaiian Electric trucks clearing downed lines and replacing busted power poles.
The result was "epic bumper-to-bumper traffic while we were trying to escape,” said resident Cole Millington, 26. “There were no police officers in sight. What there was were Hawaiian Electric trucks coming in with new telephone poles.
“Instead of waiting for everybody to get out, they were blocking the only way out with their big trucks.”
Millington and one of his roommates, Caitlin Carroll, said that when they started to flee Lahaina around 4 p.m. on Aug. 8, Hawaiian Electric workers were already clearing downed power lines and electrical wires from the Honoapiilani Highway.
“I understand that,” Millington said. “You don’t want to be driving over live wires. But they were also starting to replace the poles while we were all trying to get out. We were like, get the f--- off the road and let us get by.”
Millington and Carroll, 27, said they and other drivers were yelling at the crews to get out of the way.
“It made no sense what they were doing," Millington said. “They could see the sky was black. They could see the city was on fire. They could see the wind was still whipping everything around. But they were already starting to plant new power poles.”
Carroll said she saw several drivers get out of their vehicles with chain saws and run up to help the electrical crews clear the downed poles.
"But they were waved away," she said. "It would be one thing if they were just clearing away downed power lines to let us through. But their trucks were in our escape lanes, and they were already trying to fix the poles, replace the poles, while we were just sitting there. It made no sense."
Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai said he would look into whether the company’s trucks caused the highway to be shutdown.
Video Millington shot the day the fires erupted appears to show Hawaiian Electric trucks on the highway.
Lahaina resident Amanda Cassidy, 33, said she and her boyfriend encountered a similar situation as they tried to escape their neighborhood using Lahainaluna Road while flames devoured her rental home.
She said she saw police blocking roads while utility crews worked on downed lines.
Video Cassidy recorded and posted to Instagram appears to show her making a left turn into oncoming traffic, which was necessary because an entire lane of cars was at a complete standstill because of roadblocks as the fire barreled down the hill toward them, she said.
“When you have thousands of people in vehicles trying to flee, you have to figure something else out,” Cassidy said of the utility. “That is our lifeline, our escape route, and you cut us off from it? There was no other way out.”
Cassidy, who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said her Lahaina home was surrounded by above-ground power lines that should have been secured and dry vegetation that should have been cut before last week’s blazes.
“It’s so, so sad and disappointing. This could have been prevented years ago,” she said.
Cassidy estimated she was 20 minutes in front of people who were forced to abandon their vehicles and jump into the ocean to escape the flames.
Hawaiian Electric, the state's largest utility, was also hit with a lawsuit Wednesday that alleged it helped set the stage for the wildfires through years of negligence and failure to have plans to shut down power systems before fierce winds blew across Maui. It was the fourth lawsuit to be filed against the company in connection with the wildfires.
Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the lawsuits, saying it would violate an internal policy. Pai said Hawaiian Electric was aware of the allegations but remained focused on restoring power to Maui.
He emphasized that “the cause of the fire has not been determined, and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review.”
While investigators were trying to pinpoint what sparked the massive fires, which killed at least 110 people, reduced historic Lahaina to smoldering ruins and caused more than $7 billion in damage, NBC News reported last week that the state's emergency warning sirens were not activated to alert unsuspecting residents.
Millington said Wednesday on MSNBC that the day the fires broke out, he realized something was wrong when he “noticed a big plume of black smoke from my bedroom window.”
Millington, who said he lost his home and his business to the fires, warned his roommates, and 15 minutes later they were all “peeling” out of the parking lot in their cars.
But the main highway out of Lahaina, which is on Maui's west side, was already jammed, and it took “three-plus hours” to get to the middle of the island. He said he could see the blaze chewing through Lahaina "in my rearview mirror."
Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Lahaina, and Phil McCausland and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.