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Maui teenagers survived wildfires by wading in Pacific Ocean for 5 hours

Family discusses survival during Maui wildfire evacuation
Family discusses survival during Maui wildfire evacuation 02:50

A family on Maui says they barely escaped death, wading in the Pacific Ocean for five hours while wildfires and hurricane winds roared around them.

Milo Tomkinson, 13, and his big brother, Noah Tomkinson, 19, were trying to escape the historic Lahaina town with their mom, when the flames started to spread terrifyingly close. 

They were at their Lahaina home when they noticed the flames getting closer, so they tried to flee in their car, but traffic was so jammed on the only road out that they weren't moving, so their brains just kicked into survival mode. 

"As we were leaving our neighborhood, we were turning left out of our neighborhood, and a fire to the left of us started on this little patch of grass, and it spread incredibly quickly, it was unbelievable," Noah recalled. "It just like within a few seconds it was it was huge, and then it caught on someone's house and we saw their roof starting to catch fire. That was crazy."

Asked what was going through his mind at that moment, Noah said he was already planning in his head what to do in case they needed to bail out of the car. 

"I was just telling my mom and Milo that we should be ready to get out of the car and run, and I said, don't put your backpack between your legs. Put it on like the side of you, so if you need to run out of the car, you can. You know, legs first and then grab your bag," Noah said. "I don't even know if we were feeling any emotions, we were just in like panic."

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It didn't take long before they realized they were going to have to leave their car behind. They tried looking for shelter on foot, but flames were everywhere. 

"This is like last resort time, because the fire was like across the street at this point," Noah said. "So we were like, yeah, we've got to jump in the ocean... and then, once we got in the water, just all the wind and just all the fire, and the smog just are coming straight toward us."

Still able to touch the ocean floor beneath them, in chest to shoulder deep water, they waded for five hours.

"Felt like it was my job to keep everyone else calm, because my mom at that point was, not not doing well, her breathing I was super worried about, her eyes were not good," Noah said.  "Even Milo was more worried, we were both more worried about our mom while we were in the water than we were about us... I think she kind of froze, because everything was happening, she was cold, she couldn't breathe well, because she kept taking on water."

Noah helped his mom stay afloat, and finally as the flames began to die down, and the sky turned dark, they decided it was safe to go back to shore. 

But the challenge to stay alive wasn't over.

"We were up on shore, hiding our faces, and hearing sheets of metal fly near us and over us... just hiding our faces," Noah said. 

As the wind calmed, they sought new shelter in one of the few cars that hadn't burned.

"Part of me thought we were not going to make it out of the car, because smoke was just completely stagnant everywhere," Noah said. "It would not move. It was just like a blanket of smoke that you would that you have like no chance of getting out of."

Finally, a sign of help came when they saw sirens in the distance. 

"We saw the sirens, and they were like far across the street, maybe, maybe like a quarter mile, maybe a little less," Noah recalled. "Three firemen walk down, and they're like, 'we're going to get you guys out of here,' like, 'it's gonna be okay.'"

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Noah Tomkinson

The firemen walked them to a store parking lot, where they were eventually picked up by a police officer in a squad car. 

"I was like so relieved to be alive," Noah said. "But I felt guilty, like, 'what about all the people that didn't make it, what about all the people that aren't in getaway cars getting the safety right now?'"

The officer took them to another area, where they then got on a shuttle bus to a shelter at a school on a safer side of the island. 

The entire time, their dad, David Tomkinson, 49, was on the other side of the island, worried sick for his sons' safety, unable to communicate, with cell reception completely out. 

"Then they called me, and I was so relieved," David said. "I'm beyond thankful to have these guys alive. Every time I hear about it, just even rehearing the story right now, it's it chokes me up. It's really hard to hear, to think of how close that we were to losing each other that moment."

Once they were reunited, David said, "they smelled so strong of plastic smoke... it was awful, even right now, I can still smell the smoke on them after we've got multiple rounds of shampoo and everything."

Out of these ashes, the boys and their dad are now turning their focus to help their community heal. 

"It's been incredible how many people have stepped up," David said. "Everybody is just amazing in the biggest way to do whatever they can."

Thursday, David and Milo gathered supplies and cans of gasoline and delivered them to a friend's sailboat to be sailed over to the western side of the island, where many people remained stranded without resources.

"That's part of living on an island, and your friends become family, because a lot of people are still separated from their mainland families, so that's what happens is friends become family. So we're one giant ohana. One big family," David said. "That's exactly what it felt like, and that's another positive thing that will come out of this is everyone will be so much closer. Everyone's going to be closer."

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Noah Tomkinson

The Tomkinson family asks for anyone on the mainland to please not visit, give Maui time to rebuild, but to please consider donating money or supplies from afar in the meantime. 

Looking back on their experience, the two brave teenage boys say the whole ordeal is still incredibly surreal and almost hard to believe themselves that they survived.

Asked what's next for them, the family says much of that remains to be seen day by day. 

David, whose business burned down, says he will look for another job as he makes plans to rebuild. 

Noah, who was supposed to start a new job next week, will have to look for a new opportunity, as that business also lays in ashes. 

For Milo, school is cancelled at least through next week. As an avid biker, who enjoyed biking every day, he says he hopes he can at least find a bike to ride in his pursuit to get back to some normalcy. 

But that can all be figured out, because, as David says, "I'm still thankful to have my family intact."

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