DENVER (KDVR) — Captain Vince Eckelkamp, his wife Kathy, and their daughter Kallie were just wrapping up a family trip on Maui Tuesday when, little did they know, just hours after leaving their hotel, fires would spread violently through the town of Lahaina.
“We went to check out and then they told us just to be careful ’cause there were powerlines down and brush fires were breaking out all over the island,” Kathy said.
The couple told FOX31 they hit bad traffic trying to make it to the Kahului Airport and it took around an hour and 15 minutes to get there.
“We detoured down Front Street and hit two to three mph traffic,” Vince, a B777 line training manager pilot with United Airlines, said.
The family eventually made it to the airport for their originally planned flight. But as they waited to board, more news came out about the town they had just driven through.
“It became so real,” Kathy said. “We could have easily been in one of those burnt-out cars in Lahaina, we had just been there.”
Smoke and firefighters in airdrop helicopters were visible from airport windows. The couple said their flight continued to be delayed. One of the obstacles was getting all of the crew members to the airport.
The couple said the flight attendants were at a hotel in another town just outside Lahaina and weren’t able to get to the airport because of the fires. The flight from there was delayed until Wednesday.
Vince said he texted one of the pilots early because he knew it would be a long day for the crews, and that he could help fly if needed.
“There were no hotels in Maui that night so United had to fly the crews to Honolulu for proper crew rest and then back to Maui,” Vince said.
By Wednesday, the couple described the airport as a shelter. They said it was one of the few places with food, water and cell service. As they were there waiting, locals working would share heartbreaking stories with them.
“A lot of these employees who were there working, like the woman Vince got his bag from, they were working on their days off because they were missing employees,” Kathy said.
Eventually, the pilots made it to the airport but as they were waiting for another flight attendant crew, one of the pilots expected to fly timed out.
“So the flight was going to cancel, there was no way they could fly the flight unless I stepped up to do it,” Vince said.
Sure enough, in a polo, shorts and sneakers, Vince was in the cockpit and ready to take off with roughly 330 passengers who had been in the Kahului Airport for nearly 33 hours.
“I just played a really small piece of such a big puzzle,” Vince said.
The couple heard just moments from take-off that the airport was considered one of the safest places in the area. They said there was so much aloha spirit during such a tragedy.
“Just knowing if we had gone down Front Street just hours later, five hours later, that would have been us, but there were people there and our hearts go out to them,” Vince said.
Vince, an Air Force Academy graduate, and his wife have already planned a trip back to Maui next July. They said they want to be part of the economy there while the community works to heal and rebuild.
“The true heroes in all of this are the people in Maui right now and our thoughts are with them,” Kathy said.
Through a partnership with the American Red Cross, FOX31, Colorado’s Very Own Channel 2, and their parent company Nexstar have a dedicated Maui wildfire donation page where you can donate directly toward those impacted by the tragedy.