Ashes and sadness under scorched Lahaina’s banyan tree
LAIHANA, United States — For three days since a hurricane-fueled wildfire tore through his town, Anthony Garcia has swept a square normally packed with tourists, but now filled with charred debris and the scorched remains of animals, trying to make sense of a catastrophe that came from nowhere.
“I can’t believe that God allowed this to happen,” he told AFP, after losing everything in the fire that devoured Lahaina, a picturesque harbor on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Garcia came to Lahaina from California for a weekend in 1993 and never left, building his life in the laid-back town that was once home to Hawaii’s royal family.
His apartment looked down on a busy tourist street, where visitors packed bars, restaurants, and trinket shops.
All of that is now gone, subsumed in flames that killed at least 80 people and destroyed hundreds of houses.
The 80-year-old has slept rough in the burned-out shell of the town for the last few nights, unable to process the scale of destruction and absence in what was once a vibrant, joyful place.
He clings now to the area underneath a huge spreading banyan tree, the spiritual center of the town, and – until this week – a symbol of its stability.
“This tree? Standing for more than a century,” he said.
“And there? Lahaina’s first courthouse. Beyond? The Pioneer, opened in 1901, Hawaii’s first hotel!”
The wildfire was first reported early Tuesday morning, but seemed distant enough from the town.
It flared later in the day, and then powerful gusting winds blew it suddenly through the streets.
Many residents knew almost nothing of the flames until they saw them coming, consuming homes, cars and public buildings.
“It took everything, everything! It’s heartbreaking,” Garcia said.
Under the still-spreading but blackened branches of the banyan tree, Garcia piles scorched debris and dead animals that he has collected in an almost futile effort to put things right.
In his mind’s eye, he can still see turquoise waves breaking on the boardwalk, as visitors take selfies and lick their ice creams.
“In the mornings, this place was full of birds singing, exchanging stories,” said Garcia.
Now only the occasional pigeon scuttles through the ashes, pecking uselessly at the baked ground.
Some of those who have returned to find their houses in cinders stop to greet him.
For many, there is no reason to stay; nothing left to find among the ruins of their lives.
“I’m sad for everyone,” said Garcia, staring out to sea as a truck hauling rubble rumbles past. “But I’m staying here. I don’t want to go to another place, I want to help rebuild.”
“This place gave me so much joy, it made me a happy man,” Garcia added.
“So I’m going to start over. We have to try again.”