Memorial Day observances remember the lives lost in the deadly Maui wildfire

May 26—1/3

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Photographs of Maui fire victims Maurice "Shadow" Buen, left, and Linda Vaikeli are part of a memorial on Lahaina Bypass Road. The memorial of handmade wooden crosses, flags and lei was erected in the days following the Aug. 8 wildfire.


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Hearts of Mercy & Compassion crosses were erected in November between the Lahaina Bypass and Honoapiilani Highway. Visitors are encouraged to write messages of support on the crosses.


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A memorial of crosses was erected along the Lahaina Bypass Road for the victims of the Aug. 8 wildfires.


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The birthday card that Kimberly Buen bought for her father, Maurice "Shadow" Buen, is in a closet by her bed in her home in Palmdale, Calif.

She never mailed it because he died in the devastating Aug. 8 Maui wildfires — less than a month before his 80th birthday.

Her father's Sept. 2 birthday was the first of the "firsts" — the name she has given to the series of new milestones that bring fresh grief after her father's sudden death.

After her parents divorced, he returned to his native Hawaii. They had become close after being estranged when he reached out to her four years ago, and the message on the birthday card that she chose denotes her expectation that they had more time to bond.

Buen said, "It reads, 'Here's to more journeys. More songs to be sung. More fun to be had — because you are 80 years young. Happy 80th birthday.'"

She said normally she would have written her dad a personal note inside the card, but it is blank because he was among Maui's missing when it was time to mail it. He was identified on Sept. 12 as one of the victims of the Maui wildfires.

"I was already thinking of his birthday before he had passed, and then when his birthday came up, I didn't know what to do," Buen said. "All these firsts keep happening and they are so hard."

Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas have come and gone. Memorial Day on Monday is another "first," then comes Father's Day and the Fourth of July. In a few short months comes the first anniversary of the fire, which took 101 lives. The firestorm also burned nearly 3,000 acres and destroyed or left uninhabitable some 3,900 structures, most of them homes and many that housed multiple families.

The loss of housing only exacerbated Maui's shortage of affordable housing, and rental prices have increased ever since. In the aftermath, 3,000 families — or 7,796 individual survivors — were initially housed in 40 hotels.

During the legislative session that ended May 3, about $1 billion was dedicated for Maui's recovery, which has already started as the anniversary of the fire looms. Other signs of progress include today's Lahainaluna High School graduation, a Memorial Day weekend event that West Maui is expected to rally around, given all the fire and post-fire challenges that the senior class has endured.

Tough holiday

Still, many people who are connected to the fires remain unsettled going into Memorial Day, which in Hawaii is seen not only as a day to remember America's fallen military, but as a day to more broadly remember friends and family who have died.

Amanda Pump, president and CEO of Child & Family Service, a family-­centered, full-service nonprofit, said in an email, "Memorial Day is a day we stop and reflect upon our losses. It is certain that those who lost loved ones in the Maui wildfires will be thinking of their ohana and reflecting upon the lives they shared with these friends and family members."

Pump said the CFS team of 35 regularly deploys to Maui to help the community heal. She said CFS' employee assistance program WorkLife has been flying to Maui multiple times weekly to help get people back to work and improve their well-being. Pump said the Cohen Veterans network team was on Maui a few days after the fire to locate veterans living on the island who had been impacted by the fires and to provide resources and support.

"We are continuing to provide support and services to the Army and Air National Guardsmen who were activated to Maui to help the community," she said. "We assist both our civilian and veteran community members."

Pump said it is important to recognize that grieving is a normal process, which can "bring up shock, anger, profound sadness, disbelief and more. It could be an incredibly painful experience whose duration is unknown.

"Surrounding yourself with your loved ones is important when healing from grief and loss," she said. "Other ways to cope through grief and loss include recognizing your feelings and expressing them with words, drawings, music or other ways comfortable for you; developing a routine; talking about your feelings with someone else; and celebrating the lives of your loved ones."

That's happening on Maui this Memorial Day weekend and likely wherever there are people with ties to Maui. The family of fire victim Donna Lynn Gomes, 71, who according to her obituary in Maui Now, "had a no-nonsense attitude that made her a one of a kind soul," had planned to hold her visitation May 25.

Several participants from Maui will take part in Monday's Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawai'i-Many Rivers, One Ocean event, which takes place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Ala Moana Regional Park on Oahu. There also will be lanterns in the ceremony to remember those who are confirmed to have lost their lives in the Maui fire, and for the unaccounted.

There are people on Maui who will pay a Memorial Day visit to the makeshift memorial of handmade, wooden crosses, Hawaiian flags and lei that went up in the days following the tragedy along Lahaina Bypass Road — the main road in and out of Lahaina. It continued to grow in the months that followed and often included notes of remembrance and fresh lei as mourners stopped along the busy road to pay their respects.

Visitors also may go to the nearby Hearts of Mercy & Compassion crosses, which were erected in November by Lutheran Church Charities of Northbrook, Ill., in partnership with Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Kahului at Hokiokio Place, between the Lahaina Bypass and Honoapiilani Highway.

The symbolic heart and cross ministry is an outgrowth of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, where Greg Zanis of Aurora, Ill., gained national recognition when he constructed and delivered what he then called "Crosses for Losses" as memorials to the 13 people who were killed in that mass shooting. Zanis made and delivered more than 26,000 crosses before LCC took over his program in January 2020.

Rev. Chris Singer, LCC president and CEO, said visitors to Maui's site are encouraged to write messages of support on the crosses. Eventually the crosses may be given to next of kin, or Singer said sometimes communities decide to keep them together as a memorial.

"To be able to express words of hope and encouragement, words of aloha is such a powerful way for us to respond to such darkness and hurt and pain," Singer said. "That power of remembrance keeping those memories and those blessings and those good things alive in our memory does more than just kind of look back; it actually helps bring peace and light into the present. It actually helps us to see forward in a much clearer way."

Singer said some of the messages left on the Maui crosses are especially poignant, such as "May your spirit be honored in aloha and light" and "Your spirit will live on in your children and your children's children."

He said there are touching personal messages too, such as "I love you Mom" and "Love you forever."

Honoring the memory

In California, Buen said she cannot get to the Maui crosses for Memorial Day, but she hopes she can make arrangements to do something there to honor her dad on Veterans Day.

She said she comes from a family that respected the military so "we always put our flag up for Memorial Day and for the Fourth of July and for Veterans Day. If it wasn't for people in the service, we wouldn't have what we have today."

Buen said she was proud to learn that her father served in the Hawaii National Guard as a Private First Class (E-3) in addition to the decades that he spent working on charter sportfishing boats. She said her dad will be upmost in her mind Monday — not that he is ever far from it.

Reminders of him still are everywhere. She sees his face in pictures posted by Maui visitors on the Lahaina Remembered Group Facebook page. She said they remember the man that they knew as "Shadow," a nickname given to her dad in childhood because he would follow his older brothers around "like a little shadow."

"Something I keep coming across from random people is their memory of how he would say 'Shadow knows,'" she said. "My dad knew throughout the entire year, whatever season it was, where to catch fish."

Buen recalls that her dad loved making tourists happy, but that he had observed "that the tourists are always in a hurry. He's like, 'Where are you going to go? You are in a circle. You can't drive fast; you are going to end up in the ocean.'"

Buen said she is the one circling.

It's been that way since she embarked on the five-week post-fire search to find her dad, who had trouble walking and lived in a low-income senior housing complex.

"I got a little deep and a little crazy. My family said I was making myself sick," she said.

Buen said her uncle Ernest Buen, her dad's older brother, and a cousin, provided cheek swabs on Maui with the goal of identifying him through their DNA. She said her hopes soared when they were not a match, but eventually the FBI used her DNA to identify her dad's remains.

"When the FBI came, I asked them two questions, 'When was he found?' and 'Where was he found?'" she said tearfully. "This is so hard. They found him Aug. 9 and I had been looking for him for weeks. He wasn't even a minute away from his house. He was literally trying to make his way to the ocean."

She said the Maui Police Department and the Medical Examiner's Office later shipped her a box containing a burnt pair of her father's shorts, his sandals, a part of his dentures and two rubber bands that he used for fishing.

She said her father's ashes were scattered following a celebration of life held Feb. 3 at D.T. Fleming Beach Park on Maui, but she held onto a small amount that she plans to have made into jewelry.

The box of personal effects still sits on Buen's porch because she does not have the strength to bring it inside.

She does not know what to do with the blank birthday card either. But Buen said that she might write a personal message to her dad and mail it on what would have been his 81st birthday.

"I really need some closure," she said.


Star-Advertiser reporter Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.