As the deadly wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui continue its destruction while claiming at least 53 lives by Thursday, one man recalls his family’s terrifying experience as the wildfire exploded.
The fire began Tuesday and took the island by surprise, racing through parched growth and neighborhoods in the historic town of Lahaina, a tourist destination that dates to the 1700s and is the biggest community on the island’s west side.
Jonathan Melikidse had no idea whether his wife and children were alive. During a frantic last phone call with his family where his wife was running from the flames, the line suddenly went dead.
“The last call I had with my wife was, she was leaving our house on foot,” Melikidse recalled.
When the wildfires erupted, Melikidse was working on the south side of Maui when he received the frantic phone call from his wife, Christy, who was at home with their two children in Lahaina.
“They were really, really close and they were screaming her name,” said Melikidse of his children. “But the sounds and commotion were so crazy and the smoke was so thick, she couldn’t see them. The last call I got from her was that she had lost sight of the kids because the smoke was so thick. She was frantic and scared and I couldn’t do anything and then her phone cut out.”
Melikidse knew his neighborhood was burning and that people were dying across the island.
Throughout the night, there were no calls, no texts and no word on whether his wife and their kids — 16-year-old Gavin and 17-year-old Grace — had survived.
“I had heard stories of a coast guard boat picking up 12 people from the water and I called the coast guard at probably midnight and they were not on the list of people that were picked up,” he recalled.
With all roads completely closed and communication fully lost, Melikidse had feared the worst for his family.
Sixteen hours later, he received a text from a friend that changed everything.
“It said, ‘I have your wife and kids,’” Melikidse said tearfully. “It was the best thing I heard.”
His family had survived and were safe, but they were still separated and stranded on opposite sides of the island. Not being able to access their home, they also have no idea whether the house is even still standing.
“There’s just so much commotion right now,” Melikidse said. “The people on the other side don’t even know when food is being brought or where they can get clean drinking water. There are still bodies in the street, bodies still being washed up on shore. I think this is going to be far, far worse.”
Melikidse is hurting over everything that has been lost on his home island while also remaining grateful that his family had survived.
“They’re safe now and I’m just thankful for that,” he said. “I miss them. I wish I could be with them right now, but they’re safe.”
A GoFundMe campaign was set up to help the Melikidse Family rebuild their lives.
For those looking to help Maui recover from the deadly fires, here is a list of places to donate money and supplies.