Trapped by the flames, Annelise Cochran had no choice but to throw herself into the ocean to escape the fire that reduced the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui to ashes.
“It all happened in a few seconds,” she told AFP, six days after the fire that ravaged the town of Lahaina located on the west coast of the island of Maui. “I didn’t even feel like I made a decision because at that time I had no other choice.”
In this fire which left some 100 dead and 1,000 missing according to a toll set to increase, the 30-year-old young woman lost everything: her apartment, her car, her pet, her neighbors and her friends.
But after long hours of distress and agony, she survived. “I feel very lucky to have this connection to the sea,” says Cochran, who works for the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF). “I think he helped keep me safe that night. The ocean saved my life.”
– “Black as coal” –
On August 8, no one suspected the tragedy that would soon strike the American archipelago, recalls Annelise Cochran.
Shortly after 3 p.m., this Lahaina resident, however, smelled a burning smell. “There was no smoke, we thought maybe it was the ashes that came from the mountains after the morning fire,” she explains.
With no evacuation order, she and her neighbors began to react to the sight of the smoke-blackened sky. “Everything was black as coal. I couldn’t see an inch from me.”
The young woman ran to get her bag, a photo album and her bird and then got into her car in the direction of Front Street, Lahaina’s main artery which opens onto a busy boardwalk.
“I saw a swarm of cars. People abandoned their cars in the street and started running,” she continues. “I realized then that no one was going to rescue me, at least not for a long time.”
On the pier, she recognizes two of her neighbors.
It was when the abandoned cars trapped in the flames started to explode that the young woman and her neighbor Edna threw themselves into the ocean. Their other neighbour, who remained on the pier, was no longer moving.
Clinging to a rock wall, Annelise Cochran managed to call for help around 9:30 p.m. after several hours in the ocean. “But they told us they couldn’t help us yet.”
Around 11:00 p.m., she saw with her neighbor a coast guard boat which was rescuing dozens of people. But the boat failing to approach the rocky shore, they and about forty other survivors had to wait a few more hours in the water.
– “Terrifying and traumatic” –
“Eight hours passed before I could let go of the stone wall and leave Front Street. And of those eight hours I would say I spent at least five completely submerged up to my neck trying to protect myself,” she remembers.
“At times it was so cold that we had to climb the wall and get close to the fire to warm ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why I’m full of wounds and burns,” she says, pointing to the many scratches covering his legs and arms.
The firefighters finally came to help them around midnight. “It was terrifying and traumatic,” says Annelise Cochran.
According to her, the community of Lahaina is “very angry” with the local authorities. “What happened, in my opinion, borders on negligence (…) I am only here because I took care of it myself”.
She had lived for eight years in Lahaina, 12,000 inhabitants and former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Today, she says she cries for this city steeped in history which was almost razed to the ground by the flames.
“To think that we have lost our beautiful Lahaina and our memories. To know that I will never be able to walk on Front Street again. It is incomprehensible,” she cried. “But I feel blessed by life and happy to be here. That’s the most important thing.”