‘I couldn’t believe what I was seeing’


The harrowing scenes of utter devastation from the Hawaiian coastal community of Lahaina on the island of Maui have touched us all. But for our colleague Charles Kromer they have felt particularly close to home. Here he explains his deep connection to Lahaina and why he has launched a fundraising effort...

I lived and worked in Lahaina for nearly 25 years. Those places we’ve been shown on the TV news, I saw them every day. I recognise them by the shape of the wall, or the angle of the street because, of course, everything else has gone. Everything. All the buildings I knew, the shops and businesses, as well as people’s homes and livelihoods, all gone. The only landmark is that tall concrete chimney from the old sugar cane processing plant.

Like many before me, I left Poole in search of travel and adventure. It was 1984 and I was 20 years old. When I found myself in Lahaina, I didn’t leave for eight years. Then I came back for four years only to go back there for 16 more years until I finally came back to Poole in 2012.

I worked in bars and businesses and as a result am lucky enough to have friends in all walks of life in every corner of the globe, as well as many friends in Lahaina itself – some of whom I’ve heard from, others I’ve not. I can’t begin to explain how it has affected me. I have moments of survivor guilt – it could have been me – and others when I feel I’m helping because I’ve picked up a comment online from someone I know and I’m able to pass it on to their friends or family and connect people from the other side of the world.

I spent nine years working in one bar right in front of the sea wall where all the cars were abandoned by people fleeing the fire. It’s a small, very close-knit community, a former whaling village and once upon a time the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. The land is sacred to the indigenous people. It’s also a cultural hub with lots of art galleries. The population is about 12,000 people, so it’s much smaller than Poole, and relies on tourism for about 80% of its income.

The night it happened I’d decided to have an early night. I knew about the fires, but brush fires are nothing new on Maui, so I wasn’t overly concerned, and historically, the fields around Lahaina were planted with sugar cane, which is burned before it can be harvested. However, since the sugar cane industry wound down the fields have become inundated with guinea grass, which is incredibly dry. They’ve had drought conditions for a couple of years and with 80mph winds blowing, once the fire took hold it literally blew down the hill like a fireball engulfing the town.

So, by the time I woke up I had dozens of messages on my phone from people all over the world and as the pictures started to come through, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then I started to hear the stories of how people had escaped – one friend left with literally a moment’s notice; another’s family were driving out of town and in the rearview mirror saw a petrol station explode taking everyone in it.

In the harbour the boats were exploding and those people who managed to jump off the sea wall, some of them were in the water for five or six hours as the fire pushed over the wall and hot embers fell out of the sky all around them. It must have been beyond terrifying. I’ve heard so many stories – stories that break your heart, others that fill it with joy, some that are too terrible to share.

And now there is nothing left. Nothing at all.

Even so I know they will rebuild. These are strong people. Even before any federal aid arrived those who could were organising supplies from nearby towns, coming in by boat and forming human chains on the beach. Right now, they need food and shelter and anything they can use to remake a life.

That’s why I’ve launched a GoFundMe page. I want to raise money to give to people who need it now. There are thousands of individuals in dire need and scores of small, local charities that are doing all they can to help, so that’s where I’m sending the money. I have friends on the ground, people I’ve known for 20 years or more, who will see it gets to those in need.

These are ordinary people, just like you and me, so I hope my colleagues at Lighthouse will consider donating. It will make such a difference.


:: To find out how you can help the people of Lahaina, click on this link – Kokua* Lahaina

*Kokua is an important concept in Hawaiian culture, it means to help others selflessly, with no expectation of anything in return.