A mother raced to save her son from the Maui fires. She couldn't reach him
MAUI, Hawaii — A little over a week ago, Luz Vargas had been making party plans for her adopted son — a vanilla cake, maybe some pork tacos, and lots and lots of friends to celebrate the popular boy's 15th birthday on Sunday.
Now, she's planning a memorial service.
Keyiro Fuentes is one of more than a hundred victims claimed in the inferno that ravaged the historic town of Lahaina in Maui on Aug. 8.
Authorities have yet to process his remains, so he has not been added to the list of confirmed dead as of the publication of this story.
On the day of the fires, Fuentes was home alone. Classes for juniors at Lahainaluna High School didn't start for another day, so the boy was delighted to relish his final day of summer vacation, Vargas, who only speaks Spanish, told NPR.
The rest of the family, including Vargas, her husband Andres, and their eldest son Josue, were all working at a nearby condominium. They operate a local cleaning business, servicing resorts and apartment buildings in Honokowai, about five miles away.
When the blaze engulfed Lahaina, they jumped in their car, bolting toward the burning neighborhood. With the winds whipping around them and the fire moving so rapidly, there was only so far they could go in the vehicle.
"We just abandoned the car," Vargas said, recalling the horrifying day.
"Everyone was running away from the flames, but we were all running toward them," she said, adding that all three split up on foot so that at least one of them might be able to reach Fuentes, who they thought might be sleeping through the terror outside.
On the way up the hill toward the white stucco house, a woman grabbed hold of Vargas and pleaded with her to stop. "Don't go! The fire has consumed everything," Vargas remembered her saying.
"I just looked at her and said, 'Please get out of my way. I need to save my son,' " she said.
A few hundred yards later, Vargas came up against a police barricade, stopping people from going into the firestorm.
"I told them my son is still in our house. I said he's at this house on this street," but none of them spoke Spanish, she said.
"That's when I got down on my knees and threw my hands in the air," she said. They denied her entreaties. "And then I disobeyed."
Vargas saw a way up. Pulling herself together, she got up and bolted across the road. The police let her go.
As she sprinted up a series of winding streets, the soles of her flip-flops began to melt, slowing her down. She chucked them off. A man on a motorbike saw her. He offered to drive her up another couple of blocks toward the edge of the fire. Vargas said she hopped on behind him, reciting prayer after prayer.
Around them, the fire was devouring houses, apartment buildings and cars. The man took her as far as where firefighters were battling the flames. He couldn't go any further, but he told her he'd pray for her son, too.
Barefoot and frantic she tried to get past the emergency responders but they stopped her.
"They held me back. They held me back," she said quietly.
An Argentinian man fleeing his home with a single small bag of clothing offered to translate for her. He told officials that she believed her son was trapped in the house. He repeated her exact address. But, Vargas said, the officers assured her they had cleared the area.
"They told me that there was no one left. That I should look for him away from the fire."
A desperate search
For the next two days, Vargas and her husband searched for Fuentes at local shelters, hitching rides from friends after losing their car.
They had reported Fuentes missing to local authorities so they checked in with police periodically, too. Using the only cellphone they had left — Andres's phone — they called the few classmates for which they have phone numbers. But mostly, they waited for the boy to turn up at Honokowai Beach Park, a place that's become a local hub for survivors and the community.
Then on Aug. 10, two friends arrived at the park with dreadful news for Vargas and her husband. They had snuck into the house and found Fuentes. He was dead.
"I asked them to take me. I wanted to see him," Vargas said calmly.
On the way to the house, Vargas had them make a detour. She stopped at her sister's home to pick up a shovel and a pail.
"I thought he'd just be ashes ... powder," she explained. "But that's not how it was."
What they found was Fuentes's charred body on a pile of debris in what had been his bedroom. Vargas closed her eyes to describe what she'd seen: All of the furniture in the room was reduced to rubble and the boy was face down on the ground. The family dog was lying just a few inches away.
Grief-stricken and in a daze, Andres pulled out his cellphone and took six photos.
Seeing her young son lifeless was a breaking point for Vargas, she said. She let out a howl and a supplication.
"Please God, hold him for me," she wailed. "Wait for me there, mijo. Wait for me because one day, I, too, will leave this Earth."
The group prayed together over Fuentes' remains. Eventually, Andres wrapped the body in a tarp he found amid the debris.
"My husband picked him up and carried him all the way back to the car," Vargas said. It was about a half a mile walk.
Andres and the elder son, Josue, took the body to the police station, where they put him in a bag and recorded his name, making a note to take him off of the "unaccounted for" list.
Vargas said she's not sure where the body is or what's being done at the moment. She said she was given the names of three funeral homes on the island that could perform the funeral services, but that she hasn't heard from any officials.
Vargas's friends and husband told NPR they are concerned about her well-being. There are moments when she loses her grasp on reality, her husband said.
Standing in Honokowai Beach Park, six days after finding her son's body, Vargas described feeling numb, as if she was sleepwalking and watching herself from above. She said she likes to come to the park every day because it was a place Fuentes loved.
"That's where he took his first steps," she said, pointing to a corner of the small beachfront park.
"He was a sweet boy. Mi niño, mi niño, mi niño," she said sobbing.
Wiping tears from her face, she shook off the sorrow.
"He wouldn't let me leave the house without filling in my eyebrows," she said, laughing, adding that he'd recently become a bit girl-crazy. "He really liked to exercise. He wanted to be fit and he'd joke about the saying [in Spanish], that those who don't shower attract more women. 'That's why I get so many girls,' he'd say."
For now, Vargas wants to keep her hands busy, she said. "And I'm planning a party. Well, not a party, but a gathering. I want to honor my son and have his birthday party."
She's asked a friend to pick up a cake and to make some food. She also wants to have white balloons.
"A lot of them. He would like that," Vargas said.
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