Return to Maui: Wildfire survivor who lost everything copes with trauma, worries about the future

Return to Maui: Wildfire survivor copes with trauma, uncertain future
A man who lost everything in the Maui wildfire worries about an uncertain future left for people on the island.
David Ono Image
Friday, December 29, 2023

LAHAINA, Hawaii (KABC) -- One of the biggest stories of the year was the shocking loss of Lahaina on Maui. A wildfire reduced the historic community to ashes in a matter of minutes.

ABC7's David Ono happened to be there during the fires. As he began reporting on the devastation, he met John Singer.

Singer lost everything, but saved himself by jumping into the ocean. David returned to Maui this month to find him.

"It's like a nuclear bomb went off"

Fueled by powerful winds, the flames overran Maui and devastated the town of Lahaina last summer. The death toll stands at 100.

David first met Singer at his home at the Front Street Apartments, which was destroyed.

Still in shock in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Singer described to David what happened. He recalled smelling the smoke and then seeing what they were up against.

"I noticed an incredible amount of wind," he recalled. "I just said 'we're history.'"

"I noticed an incredible amount of wind. I just said 'we're history.'"
John Singer

Despite the pending doom, he fought that fire with a garden hose from his rooftop. With tears in his eyes, he recalled the moment he gave up.

"I ran with a lot of heat in my back, and I ran to the left over here," he said. "We live very close to the ocean, and I ran to the ocean and I gave in."

What did he see when he looked back?

"Devastation. Everything... gone," an emotional Singer said.

"From houses, to the markets, to the businesses - it's like a nuclear bomb went off here. There's nothing left," he added.

At the Pacific Disaster Center, we get a shocking illustration of how accurate Singer's description is. The experts there analyze disasters all over the world, but this time it's different. The center happens to be headquartered on Maui.

With remarkable accuracy, they can illustrate the details of the disaster. A satellite image indicated almost all of Lahaina was destroyed or heavily damaged.

Maui's uncertain future

Four months after the fire, David found Singer in a rural community on the north side of the island called Haiku.

His smile is a breakthrough.

Outside his home was a garden, fruit trees and a place for animals - chickens and goats.

But he still has a long a way to go.

Through disaster assistance, he's able to live there for the next few months, but when the money runs out, then what?

"Being homeless - I think that's at the top of the agenda of everybody's fear," Singer said. "Where am I going to put my body? Where am I going to sleep?"

"Being homeless - I think that's at the top of the agenda of everybody's fear."
John Singer

"The waiting list for low-income housing on Maui is four years, and that's the thing that we need most desperately on Maui, is low-income housing," he added.

He's still dealing with the trauma from that horrible day.

Even though the wounds are still fresh, he worries the story isn't and that America has moved on.

"I'm not going to even sugarcoat it. I'm surprised to see you guys here." Singer told David.

"I just did not expect to see incredible journalism going off like you guys are doing, like telling the real story," Singer said.

"It's aftermath. It's what happens after - the people, the lives, the devastation, how it's addressed," Singer said. "If it's addressed in the right way, with a lot of respect and dignity to the people who live here, and that's really the story."