GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two Grand Rapids Community College students who escaped the fires in Maui have returned to West Michigan.
“The smoke looked like it was coming directly at you, like it was going in a straight line,” Emma Sutherland recalled the fire.
Sutherland, a daughter of a News 8 photojournalist, and Jessica Tocila were spending the summer working in Lahaina on culinary internships. They arrived home Saturday and said they are grateful for everyone who helped them get out of the fire’s path.
Losing power early in the morning of Aug. 8 was the first sign something was wrong.
“A little while later, one of my coworkers ended up saying, ‘I have to go home to check on my kids; there’s a fire.’ And so he went home and that was kind of the first point we knew that there was a fire. We still just didn’t really think too much about it that it was going to be a real threat,” Sutherland said.
The roommates thought the fire would soon be under control. They did not know it had flared up and spread until their apartment manager knocked on their door.
“We could smell that smoke. … Our smoke detectors were going off and it was just black outside. We couldn’t see much. And it was super windy; everything was blowing in. And that’s when we realized how urgent this was,” Tocila said.
With little time, they packed what they could.
“Just a change of clothes and some necessities. We didn’t bring any food. All of our stuff was left behind for the most part and that was all destroyed by the fire,” Tocila said.
The students then had to figure out how to get to safety as the flames spread.
“We didn’t have a car. That was, I think, our biggest thing at first and our neighbor knocked and told us, ‘Here’s some keys to a car. Just go.’ And so we got in a car and just started driving,” Sutherland said.
With the roads clogged, getting to the north side of the island seemed like an impossible task.
“It was so dark and even just as we were driving, it was getting worse and we were just sitting in traffic trying to get out,” Sutherland said.
They eventually took another route. A drive that normally takes 50 minutes took 4.5 hours.
“It was just hard to breathe and it smelled terrible and there was moments where we were getting out … where there was power lines down and I was getting nervous going under those,” Tocila said.
After the smoke had cleared, Bakery Lahaina, where Sutherland worked, and the Kimo’s Lahaina restaurant, where Tocila worked, were gone.
“We feel blessed that we had a place to come back to where so many people had nothing left over there and they don’t have a place to come to,” Sutherland said.
Grateful to have survived, they are worried about what will happen to the people on the island who lost everything.
“Nearly everybody I know back in Maui lost their home. A lot of them are in the shelters and a lot of supplies and resources, they’re available, but I just worry about what’s next for them,” Tocila said.
The students want to return to Maui someday after Lahaina rebuilds.