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Lahaina fire becomes deadliest fire in US in 100 years
01:34 - Source: CNN
The apocalyptic wildfires that raced across Maui have claimed at least 111 lives – a devastating number that’s expected to grow.
Many of the victims died while trying to escape the flames – including a 7-year-old boy and three members of his family who were found “in a burned-out car near their home,” according to a verified GoFundMe page.
“On behalf of our family, we bid aloha to our beloved parents, Faaso and Malui Fonua Tone, as well as our dear sister Salote Takafua and her son, Tony Takafua,” the family said in a statement to CNN affiliate Hawaii News Now.
“The magnitude of our grief is indescribable, and their memories will forever remain etched in our hearts.”
The mass tragedy is expected to intensify as search crews keep sifting through the ashes of the “many hundreds of homes” destroyed by the infernos.
And the number of residents unaccounted for was “probably still over 1,000” as of Wednesday, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CNN.
But as the identities of more victims emerge, so do poignant tales about their lives. These are some of their stories:
A grandfather and musician who toured with Santana
Buddy Jantoc, 79, was living at a senior housing complex when flames swept through Lahaina, CNN affiliate KITV reported.
Buddy Jantoc, 79, of Lahaina, loved spending his time with family, his granddaughter said. (CNN blurred parts of this image to protect the identity of minors.)
Jantoc was one of the first two victims that Maui County officials publicly identified.
“My papa was older, but for him to be taken from us that way,” his granddaughter Keshia Alaka’i told KITV. “I think that’s what’s the hardest to come to terms with.”
Jantoc sang, played the guitar and drums and even toured with Carlos Santana’s band, his granddaughter said. Most recently, he played music for local hula halls.
Alaka’i spoke with her grandfather often and will miss their phone calls – including “his calls for the silly stuff,” she told KITV.
“Buying things for him, ordering online because he didn’t know how to work it or, you know, fighting with his iPhone because I had bought him a new one he didn’t know how to work that,” she fondly recalled.
Iola Balubar, a hula instructor who performed with Jantoc, told KITV he was “a good man, a good grandpa.”
“Whatever time he had with his family, he treasured it,” she said.
An animal lover who died shielding a beloved dog
Franklin “Frankie” Trejos, 68, lived in the historic town of Lahaina for three decades before the inferno consumed his neighborhood, niece Kika Perez Grant said.
Trejos’ longtime friend and roommate told the family he and Trejos tried to save their property before the flames overwhelmed them, Perez Grant said.
Franklin 'Frankie' Trejos adored his roommate's dog, Sam, his niece said.
The roommate suffered burns but managed to escape the chaotic scene. But Trejos was nowhere to be found.
Hours later, the roommate called Trejos’ family again “to tell us he had found Uncle Frankie’s remains,” Perez Grant said. Trejos’ remains were found blocks away from his home on top of his roommate’s dog, whom he loved, his niece said.
“Uncle Frankie was a kind man, a nature lover, an animal lover and he loved his friends and his families with this whole heart,” his niece said.
“He loved adventure and was a free spirit.”
She ‘always looked for the good in people’
Carole Hartley was known for "her fun personality, her smile and adventures," her sister said.
Carole Hartley, who lived in downtown Lahaina, died while trying to flee, her sister told CNN.
As Hartley and her partner, Charles Paxton, tried to escape the flames, they were separated by thick, black smoke that engulfed them, Donna Gardner Hartley said.
The powerful winds whipped by Hurricane Dora moved quickly and “kept changing,” Gardner Hartley wrote in a Facebook post.
Paxton “said they were inside a dark smoke (that) felt like a tornado and they could not see nothing they kept calling each others name,” she wrote.
“He was screaming … ‘Run run run Carole run.’ He eventually could not hear her anymore.”
Hartley’s partner was eventually found by his friends and treated for burn injuries, Gardner Hartley wrote.
He then organized a search group to look for Hartley. The group discovered her remains on the couple’s property over the weekend, Gardner Hartley told CNN.
Paxton believes Hartley turned back to help someone before she died, Gardner Hartley said in a statement.
A verified GoFundMe account has been established to support Paxton during his grief.
“This week has been the worse days of our life,” Gardner Hartley said in her statement. “It takes your breath away when you receive the call that your little sister’s remains were found on her property and that they are still waiting for DNA verification.”
Gardner Hartley remembered her sister as a special, loving person from a young age. The two would talk often, she said, and were always “a phone call away.”
Hartley had lived on the island for 36 years, her sister said.
“My little sister has always looked for the good in people and always helped others,” Gardner Hartley said. “She will be missed by all that knew her for her fun personality, her smile and adventures.”
A beloved grandmother who tried to flee
Melva Benjamin, 71, of Lahaina perished in the Maui fires, county officials said.
The last time Melva Benjamin’s family heard from her, the 71-year-old grandmother was evacuating to a shelter with her partner on August 8, her granddaughter said.
After days of frantic searching, the family learned she had died in the fire, granddaughter Tufalei Makua shared on Facebook.
“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart, we announce the loss of Melva Benjamin. We were informed this afternoon, Tuesday, Aug 15, 2023, that she perished in the Lahaina fires,” Makua wrote.
“We appreciate the love and support that everyone has shown us during this difficult time. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we remember and honor her. We love you all.”
Matriarch was the ‘backbone’ of the family
Donna Gomes of Lahaina perished in the fire, officials said. Her granddaughter, Tehani Kuhaulu, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Gomes was the backbone of the family.
The 71-year-old was a retired Maui Police Department public safety aide. She had plans to visit Las Vegas to celebrate her upcoming birthday, her granddaughter said.
“She loved to play poker and gamble,” Kuhaulu said. “Her self-care was going to Las Vegas, any casino.”
She leaves behind two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Retiree ‘just makes us smile every day with his jokes’
Alfredo Galinato made his family smile every day, his son said.
Alfredo Galinato of Lahaina perished in the Maui fires, according to county officials. His sons spoke to KITV and said the 79-year-old tried to save their family home that he built.
“With all his heart I know that he was trying to fight the fire to save our home,” his son Joshua Galinato told KITV. “So we can come back to our home as a whole family.”
Galinato’s sons searched for him and shared images of him on social media in the days after the fire, trying to find anyone who might know his whereabouts. But the family was later contacted by officials with devastating news.
“I miss everything about my dad right now. His personality is just straight funny. I mean he just makes us smile every day with his jokes,” Joshua said. “I just miss him.”
“The get-togethers, we’ll be missing that,” Galinato’s son John told KITV. “Gatherings. He takes care of us a lot of times. He’s retired, but he just helps all the family. We’ll be missing him, seeing his face, his smile, everything – all the moments.”
A verified GoFundMe account has been established by the family.
Most victims haven’t been publicly identified
The arduous task of identifying remains has been especially difficult because they’re largely unrecognizable and fingerprints are rarely found, the governor said.
Maui County confirmed the first group of victims’ names about a week after the catastrophic Lahaina fire started torching the historic town.
They included Benjamin, Galinato and Jantoc, as well as Virginia Dofa, 90; and Robert Dyckman, 74. All five lived in Lahaina.
Two Mexican nationals died in the Maui wildfires, Mexico Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena said.
“Consular staff is providing assistance and accompaniment to their families,” she said. “We express our deepest condolences in this tragic situation.”