As thousands of people rushed to flee the raging wildfire that swept through the Hawaiian town of Lahaina, a flaming branch crashed to the roadway ahead of Laurie Allen’s car as she tried to escape. With the fire closing in, she knew that her only hope was to get out and run – through the inferno.
One hand held her important documents; the other clasped the hand of her landlady. They sprinted through the flames – the papers incinerating, their grasp faltering in the searing heat. Allen eventually emerged, running into a firefighter who enveloped her to extinguish the fire.
That night, as the blaze continued raging through Lahaina, Allen was raced to a burn center two islands away in Honolulu, part of a desperate effort to save her life. But after a series of surgeries and meticulous skin grafts, after weeks of encouragement and prayers and raw hope, the multiple infections that set in could no longer be kept at bay on a body that had been so extensively burned.
On Friday, seven weeks after the Aug. 8 fire, Allen became the 98th death in a disaster that was already the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the past century.
“There are no words to express how deeply I will miss her,” her husband, Perry Allen, said in a text message Saturday sharing news of her death.
On the afternoon of the fire, Perry Allen had been working at a resort north of the burn area. He was able to speak by phone with his wife and make a plan as she prepared to flee. But for hours afterward, he had no idea what had happened to her. Cellphone service was faltering, and Laurie Allen did not show up at the meeting place they had agreed to. With the fire still burning, police were blocking roads into town, prohibiting anyone from driving in to search.
Then a voice message pinged on his phone: Doctors at the hospital in Wailuku had a woman with severe burns, but they did not know who she was. The woman, who was being flown to a burn unit in Honolulu, had only been able to mutter Perry Allen’s name and his phone number.
Her fingernails and toenails were painted purple, they said. He knew it was his wife.
When he managed to reach Honolulu the following day, Allen said, his wife had a tube in her throat but was able to communicate with an alphabet board, pointing to letters to spell out words. As soon as he arrived, he said, she spelled out the names of their landlady, Conchita, and her son, Danilo.
“What do you know?” Allen asked her. He saw tears welling up in her eyes. Conchita Sagudang, 75, and Danilo Sagudang, 55, were later listed among the fire’s confirmed fatalities.
The fire had spread rapidly on the afternoon of the disaster, as it erupted in dry grasses more than a mile from the waterfront and was pushed down the hillside by potent winds.
Some people were able to flee just in time; others found themselves trapped by downed power lines. Many sought refuge in the ocean for hours. Survivors have reported having little warning about the extent of the threat until flames were suddenly upon them.
From the early days, it was clear that dozens of people had died. Officials are continuing to work through a list of people who were reported missing.
Fire often does its work slowly on the body. Deep burns can destroy the underlying nerve endings and the body goes into shock, limiting the level of pain – in the initial stages. Over the first few days at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu, Laurie Allen was able to breathe on her own and put aside the alphabet board to talk with her husband.
She recounted her harrowing flight from the fire, how the Sagudangs had not emerged from the flames. She expressed her sorrow that her husband’s treasured art collection could not be saved.
He urged her to keep fighting, to not, after all that, give up now. She seemed to know the odds were against her, Perry Allen said. If she didn’t make it, she told him, he should continue on with a good life.
“Even in this total dire situation, we both just felt really blessed,” he said.
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The couple had been together for two decades but only married a couple of years ago. They had been drawn to Lahaina, he said, for its beauty and sunshine and the historic downtown that was a remnant of old Hawaii. They cycled almost every night to watch the sunset from the harbor.
Laurie Allen loved the water, snorkeling and kayaking whenever she could. She went to church three days a week, her husband said, and would sometimes stop at the side of the road to strike up relationships with homeless people, helping some of them get into permanent housing.
“That’s the kind of stuff she would do,” he Allen said.
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In the hospital, doctors warned the couple that there would be a long path to any recovery, and no guarantees: 73% of her skin had third-degree burns.
Such extensive burning is often not survivable, but medical workers told Perry Allen that they were holding out hope. With the development of new techniques and skin substitutes, burn care has advanced over the decades, giving people in the most dire situations a shot at survival. And Laurie Allen had shown resilience in being able to breathe on her own.
“We’ve got a fighting chance here,” the surgeon told them.
The staff at the medical center was handling nine burn patients from Lahaina, the most from one fire in the unit’s history. Laurie Allen required constant attention.
Within days, the pain came roaring back. And as doctors began the slow work of grafting healthy skin onto her wounds, she was placed under round-the-clock sedation. At times, she would become alert enough to nod or blink answers before doctors pushed her down into sleep again. The conversations with her husband largely ended, although he spent days caressing her forehead and brushing her hair – two small areas he was able to touch.
Nurses spent hours cleaning and bandaging wounds to stave off infection. There was a series of surgeries to remove dead skin and graft replacements. The only skin from her own body available for grafting was on her abdomen, so doctors tried working with donor skin and experimental protective barriers. Surgeons told Perry Allen that they would normally wait to do procedures in two-week intervals but were forced to try making them happen every week.
It was a fight from the very beginning. Infections began to spread on her body, and some of the skin grafts could not take hold, Perry Allen said. A planned surgery was canceled. Some of her vital organs began to fail.
“Once they found that out, that changed the game,” he said. “She was getting weaker.”
He telephoned some of his wife’s family members to travel in to say goodbye.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.