SoCal woman recounts her elderly father's harrowing escape from raging wildfire in Maui

Michelle Fisher Image
Saturday, August 12, 2023
SoCal woman recounts her elderly father's escape from wildfire in Maui
A Cypress woman who grew up in Lahaina, Maui, recounted her elderly father's harrowing escape from the wildfire that devastated the historic Hawaiian town.

CYPRESS, Calif. (KABC) -- The devastating wildfires in Hawaii have affected Southern California residents who have close ties to Maui.

Among them is a Cypress woman who grew up in Lahaina. In an interview with ABC7, she recounted her elderly father's harrowing escape from the raging fire that destroyed the historic town.

"It's really hard -- sorry -- not to get emotional thinking about it," Jennifer Digiacomo said. "Again, it's just such a miracle that he is here."

Digiacomo held back tears as she thought about her 74-year-old father, Joe Pluta, and her childhood home of Lahaina.

"It's been gut-wrenching," Digiacomo said. "I actually had to stop looking at images because it just doesn't feel real."

Digiacomo had visited her father in Hawaii as recently as June. He is a US Navy veteran and recipient of Hawaii's Peace Hero Award. His daughter said he is lucky to be alive after fleeing from the deadly wildfires.

Digiacomo said her father popped the screen out of a window and "dove head-first out." He "hit the ground and hit his head, unfortunately, stumbled to the street and at this point he saw not only was his house on fire, but the entire neighborhood was on fire. Every house he could see was engulfed in flames."

Many survivors said in interviews that they didn't hear any sirens or receive a warning that gave them enough time to prepare and only realized they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

Like so many others in the area, Joe Pluta and his wife, Carole -- who is battling Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and dementia -- lost everything.

Digiacomo set up a GoFundMe page to help with her stepmother's around-the-clock care. The outpouring of generosity is attributable in part to Pluta's community involvement in Lahaina, his daughter said.

"When my sister and I were growing up there, we couldn't go anywhere without people stopping and saying 'Hi' to my dad, because they knew him," Digiacomo said. "He is always in the paper for ways he is trying to make the community a better place."

As questions continued to arise about emergency management warnings and response, Digiacomo had this message from her father:

"The firemen and police men on Maui are heroes," she said. "They have done the best they can with horrible, horrible conditions, being understaffed and underfunded. They fought until the very end trying to help everybody."

Donations can be made to the West Maui Improvement Foundation, Digiacomo said, which was founded by her father.