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The fire that swept through the town of Lahaina, on Maui, in early August destroyed much of a beloved place with a deep history for Native Hawaiians. At least 98 people are believed to have died in the wildfire, the country’s deadliest in more than 100 years.
Corina Knoll traveled to Maui to cover the tragedy for The New York Times, and spent time talking with residents who lost relatives in the fire and learning about one family’s harrowing escape. We asked her over email what it was like to report on such a painful experience. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you find the family you wrote about?
The Tone family had posted some details about themselves on a GoFundMe page, and I started looking more deeply into them because it seemed particularly heartbreaking that four people from the same household had died — and that one was a 7-year-old boy. It was also important to me to write about a working-class Pacific Islander family, as I’m always hoping to illuminate the lives of people of color. The labor force that sustains Maui’s tourism industry deserves to be highlighted. I couldn’t get in touch with them at first, but eventually reached a pastor who helped connect me with them.
It’s difficult reporting on disasters. How did you approach talking to this family? What kind of sensitivities did you have in mind?
There is a very strange and hard line we walk when trying to get victims’ families to talk to us. They’re going through the worst time of their lives, and a stranger is asking them to open up. But we are on the ground for a limited number of days, and are highly aware that the world’s attention soon moves on. I tell people very gently that if they want to tell their story, the timing does matter.
At first, Folau Tone didn’t seem to want to meet. When I arrived on Maui, we started communicating mostly through texts. His replies were usually short and vague, and it was hard to tell what he would be up for. But I figured, he hadn’t told me to go away, so I kept checking in with him.
I tried to make it clear that I wanted to tell a sensitive story that would hopefully honor his family members. He finally agreed to an interview at his hotel. I ended up talking to him and his wife, Sabrina, for a few hours.
I’ll always be grateful that they spoke to me. Stories like theirs are so invaluable. It revealed how harrowing and terrible the escape was for survivors and how much was truly lost.
What was it like being on Maui and seeing the wildfire’s devastation firsthand?
When I arrived, three weeks after the fire, sections of Lahaina were closed off, but you could still see burned areas and scorched cars that had been abandoned. There was a row of white crosses, each one for a victim. It was odd to be on a beautiful island that was heavy with tragedy.
But there was also such community at work: makeshift centers where volunteers cooked food and played music and tried to create a vibe of peace and fellowship. I attended a memorial for a 28-year-old father, and his family invited me to their home afterward. They were so warm and open, and the night was filled with laughter and honesty. It felt like something that would only happen in a place like Hawaii.
Is it emotional for you to work on these stories? How do you cope and process what you’re feeling?
When Folau spoke, it brought me to tears. But that emotion tells me that the story matters, and I use it while I’m writing. That’s one way of coping — being able to get it out and onto paper.
It can be an all-consuming process because I take stories like these personally, which is admittedly not healthy. But I feel a great responsibility to write something that is worth the trust someone gave me.
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