LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Leola Vierra stepped gingerly among the hardened pools of melted metal, charred wood and broken glass that are almost all that remain of the home where she lived for nearly 50 years.
Sifting through the rubble, she found two cow-patterned vessels, part of her extensive collection of bovine figurines. Nearby, her son discovered the blackened remnants of his late grandfather’s pistol from his days as a Lahaina policeman from the late 1940s to 1970s. There was no sign of the beloved cat, Kitty Kai, that used to greet her when she came home from work and church.
“I’m so sad — devastated,” she said. “This was my home.”
Vierra, her husband and two adult children returned to the property Tuesday for the first time since the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century whipped through on Aug. 8, obliterating the historic town of Lahaina and killing at least 97 people. They were among the first small group of residents to be allowed back into the burn zone to see where their homes once stood.
They wore boots, white coveralls, face masks and gloves to protect them from toxic ash and other dangers, but their visit was cut short after about 15 minutes when workers showed up and cordoned off the property with yellow caution tape.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official informed them over the phone that a crew did a “last quality assurance check” on Saturday afternoon and didn’t like not knowing what was underneath the crumpled remnants of the roof. A team would return Wednesday morning and the agency would call with an update, the official said.
Afterward, the family milled about on the sidewalk and looked toward the property. Vierra’s son, Mika, said they would come back when they get clearance so they can look around some more.
The four-bedroom house, which Vierra designed, was in the hills overlooking the ocean on Maui’s coast. It had a pool, which now sits half full, and an outdoor kitchen — she called it the cabana — which is gone.
The family ran four stores that catered to tourists, selling aloha shirts and muumuus along with leis that Vierra’s husband, Mike Vierra, would make from plumeria blossoms he picked in their yard. Three of the stores burned down. Of the family’s dozen plumeria trees, three survived.
Three small banyan trees — one planted for each of her three children — also appeared to have survived and even showed signs of new growth.
Officials opened the first area for reentry — a section of about two dozen parcels in the north of Lahaina — on Monday and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Residents and property owners could obtain passes to enter the burn zone.
The Vierras have been staying at a resort hotel, like thousands of other survivors whom the government has put up in temporary housing across Maui. They waited until Tuesday so that Mika could join them after arriving from Utah, where he works in sales.
Mika drove to the property with his parents straight from the airport. He said he and his sister have decided to rebuild when the cleanup is done, whenever that is.
“We’ll be sure to rebuild something nice where our old house used to be,” he said.
Johnson reported from Seattle.