A man who escaped the Maui fires by spending hours in the ocean has revealed harrowing details of how he survived one of the most terrifying natural disasters the country has seen in years.
The death toll from the Hawaiian wildfires has now climbed to 106, but officials expect that number to increase further as searchers sift through the toxic rubble for victims and around 1,000 people are still missing.
Only five of the deceased have so far been identified because the remains have been left unrecognisable by the blaze, according to Maui County officials
Local resident Mike Cicchino, who lived in one of Lahaina’s inland neighbourhoods with his wife, has spoken out about his terrifying escape from the deadly fires last week.
Mr Cicchino was driving to the hardware store last Tuesday for a generator when he was suddenly caught in a desperate fight for his life.
The neighbourhood quickly became engulfed in flames and it was “like a continuous bomb going off,” Mr Cicchino told NewsNation host Natasha Zouves.
Mr Cicchino raced back to his house and gathered his wife and the dogs they were watching and attempted to flee the area. The smoke was so thick and black, they eventually lost some of the dogs, he said.
“Behind us, straight ahead, beside us, everywhere was on fire,” Mr Cicchino said, adding that he made final phone calls to his loved ones fearing he would not escape alive.
His mother was on the phone to 911 at the time and told the couple to follow the traffic. But the endless line of cars were headed straight for the inferno, he said.
Their only option, as they could tell, was to jump into the ocean.
“Do you want to get burned or take your chances and drown?” he told NewsNation he had asked himself.
For the next five or six hours, Mr Cicchino said that he and his wife moved back and forth between the ocean and shore. When flames fell from the sky, they ducked beneath the surface of the water.
“There are points where we were starting to pass out and we were about to drown,” Mr Cicchino said.
“Then, we got to come to shore. The cars parked next to shore caught on fire or were exploding. It was a leapfrog of fire. Go out, we’re getting burned. Come in, go out. Everywhere, we were getting burned or we couldn’t breathe.”
Mr Cicchino broke down as he recounted seeing death unfold before his eyes while desperately trying to keep himself and his wife above water.
They saw several bodies slumped against a wall at the shoreline, he said.
Other people in the ocean desperately clung to their babies and small children as the water whipped them around for hours. When Mr Cicchino later returned with the US Coast Guard to help pull people out of the water, the babies were gone.
“I saw babies out there that I never saw again,” Mr Cicchino said, his voice breaking. “When I came back, when I was doing a headcount of the kids, the babies weren’t there anymore.”
He said the whole ordeal felt like a nightmare.
“This cannot be real. This cannot actually be happening,” he said. “But then you realise you’re burning. I’m feeling pain, and I don’t feel pain in nightmares.”
It was a gruelling 12 hours before the US Coast Guard rescued Mr Cicchino and his wife at around 1am on Wednesday morning.
“At times, I remember just telling her to make sure that she saves herself. ‘Don’t worry. If I start drowning out here, you save yourself.’ It’s the most terrifying experience of our life,” he said.
Mr Cicchino said the first thing he did was call his mother back.
“When I spoke with her, I broke down. When she came and got me, I broke down again,” he recalled. “We couldn’t stop hugging each other. We were afraid to stop hugging each other.”
Mr Cicchino and others have said they received “no warning at all” before the fires and believe it “could have been prevented”.
The fires, which are believed to be the deadliest in the US in the last century, erupted last week on three of Hawaii’s islands forcing visitors to flee and residents to seek emergency shelter.
Photos and videos from Maui show the destruction the fires have caused, with some neighbourhoods including the historic town of Lahaina, nearly burned to ash.
Search and recovery efforts then began as firefighters worked to contain and put out the fires. But the wildfires have sparked a frenzy of questions about how disasters like this can be prevented in the future.
Hawaii’s Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office will be conducting a review of the decision-making and policies surrounding wildfires.