Maui fires: Bay Area residents hold moment of silence at Aloha Fest, as others recall harrowing escapes

Maui fires: Bay Area residents hold moment of silence at Aloha Fest, as others recall harrowing escapes

For two agonizing days, Sean Pasin’s desperate attempts to reach his two young children and their grandfather, separated from the rest of the family during the mayhem of the deadly Maui wildfires, went nowhere.

The Mountain View family’s Hawaiian vacation turned into a nightmare last week after Pasin, his wife Xenia and two other family members left the others back at the hotel to stop by a grocery store in Lahaina, the historic tourist town now decimated by the blaze.

As Pasin and the rest arrived at the store, the fire appeared contained. But without warning, thick plumes of smoke suddenly blacked out the sky as roaring flames blocked the route back to the Marriott. Cell service went dead — and just like that they were stranded overnight inside their rental car at a Walmart parking lot, Passin recalled Saturday.

“We were totally worried,” said Pasin, 49, of his two sons, 15-month-old Luke and 7-year-old Matthew, and their grandfather. “What are they going to eat? Is anybody even checking on them? Is there a plan?”

After frantic calls and texts to the Marriott proved unhelpful, Xenia eventually found her way onto an evacuation bus headed to the hotel. As the family was reunited, Luke grabbed onto his father and wouldn’t let go.

“Just thankful to god for another day,” said Pasin, who along with the rest of the family is back home in Mountain View. “Because we don’t know if people we saw that day made it out.”

The Pasins were back in the Bay Area on Saturday, as the astonishing scope of the devastation became clearer: 80 people have died and the death toll is expected to rise as cadaver-sniffing dogs were deployed to search for the dead, while nearly 1,700 structures, almost all of them residential, were destroyed, leaving as many as 4,500 people in need of shelter.

At the San Mateo County Event Center on Saturday morning, the Bay Area Aloha Festival began with a moment of silence and a prayer for the island of Maui. The annual festival is normally a celebration of Pacific Islander culture, embracing everything from Lei-making workshops and ukulele classes, to traditional net-making and Lomi Lomi massages, but for some it was also an opportunity to mourn with their community.

Jasmine Contreras, who just returned from the Hawaiian Islands to attend the Bay Area Aloha Festival at the San Mateo County Event Center in San Mateo, Calif., talks about the uncle she says she lost in the Maui fires, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Less than 10 hours after flying back from Hawaii, Jasmine Contreras joined hundreds at the festival, a celebration of Pacific Islander culture, embracing everything from Lei-making workshops and ukulele classes, to traditional net-making and Lomi Lomi massages.

Contreras, a 30-year-old from South San Francisco, called the festival “surreal.” She was visiting family in Kauaʻi this past week when the fires on Maui ignited. After details emerged about the catastrophe Wednesday morning, her family group chat started pinging like crazy with texts as people tried to figure out what exactly was going on.

It took 48 hours to learn — via text — that one of her uncles living in Lahaina was killed. He was escaping in his car, she said, when the vehicle was engulfed in flames.

“What’s hard is that we are here to celebrate, but at the same time, it’s heavy on everyone’s hearts,” Contreras said. “I think the biggest thing is how quickly people are coming together.”

While embers on the island are still smoldering and families are still searching for loved ones, she said the best thing that the mainland community could do was embody the true meaning of “Aloha Spirit” during such a moment of tragedy.

“The ‘aloha spirit’ is a feeling of welcoming and belonging,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter where you come from, because ‘home’ is not just a place — it’s about people. That’s how we’re surviving — everyone is trying to come together and help.”

At San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival Saturday, Maui chef Jason Raffin met with business owners and others in hopes of raising money for relief efforts. Raffin, a Palo Alto native who owns a catering company on the island, left just before flames engulfed his Lahaina condo. “It’s gone — everything’s gone,” he said.

Raffin, 33, said he and his girlfriend were “watching the roofs blow off of buildings” before they fled. He arrived in the Bay Area with only a backpack containing little more than his chef’s knives, passport and a swimsuit. His goal is to head back to Maui in the coming days to launch a food relief effort for others who’ve been displaced.

“We’re going to be making food as much as we can,” he said Saturday. “I’m trying to do this for the next year and just helping people with good food.”

Concord resident Kelly Thibault launched a crowdfunding campaign for her sister-in-law’s family that lost their home in the fires.

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Junior, the father of the family with two young children, is a surf instructor on the island, she said. He’d given lessons to vacationers from Arizona, who donated to the crowdfunding effort after remembering how much fun they had that day in the water.

By Saturday afternoon, the campaign raised more than $19,000.

“When you love people and treat people well, they’ll show up for you,” Thibault said.

Manley Bush, the vice president of the Pacific Islander Community Association and an emcee at the Aloha Festival in San Mateo, reminded festival-goers that such events are a way to stay connected during times of tragedy.

“Community is engrained in the Hawaiian way of life,” Bush said. “You come together in both song and dance when the need is there, and you have your fundraisers when the need is there. That’s how we keep this fellowship together.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.