Horrified survivors of the devastating Hawaii bushfire recounted seeing dead bodies littering the hellscape that was left in the wake of the raging inferno that has killed at least 36 people.
The fire overwhelmed the popular resort city of Lahaina on Maui, turning the earthly paradise into an apocalyptical nightmare of burning homes, skeletal trees and death.
“We’ve still got dead bodies floating on the seawall,” one Lahaina resident told Hawaii News Now, per the New York Post.
“They’ve been sitting there since last night.”
One Lahaina resident, identified only as Luke, told CNN “the whole town was decimated” and that it was “going to take years” for the island to recover from the damage.
Aerial video showed columns of smoke rising from block after block of Lahaina – the largest tourist destination on Maui.
“It’s like an area was bombed. It’s like a war zone,” said helicopter pilot Richard Olsten, according to Hawaii News Now.
Olsten called the situation on the ground “horrifying,” saying that he has never seen anything like this in his 52 years flying for a tour company.
“We had tears in our eyes,” he added.
Multiple neighbourhoods were burnt to the ground as the western side of the island was nearly cut off, with only one highway remaining open and thousands of people desperate to evacuate.
“We’ve still got dead bodies floating on the seawall,” one Lahaina resident told Hawaii News Now.
“They’ve been sitting there since last night.”
Some adults and children rushed into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames fanned by winds from the faraway Hurricane Dora raging hundreds of miles to the southwest.
“We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp. It’s like an apocalypse,” said resident Mason Jarvi, who suffered blisters on his thighs while escaping from the city on his electric bike.
Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke told a press conference officials were still assessing the damage.
“It will be a long road to recovery,” she said.
With firefighters battling three major infernos on Maui, the western part of the island was closed to all but emergency workers and evacuees.
Some 271 structures were damaged or destroyed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, citing official reports from flyovers conducted by the US Civil Air Patrol and the Maui Fire Department.
Smoking heaps of rubble lay piled high next to the waterfront, boats in the harbour were scorched, and grey smoke hovered over the leafless skeletons of charred trees.
More than 11,000 tourists were evacuated from Maui, Ed Sniffen, of the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said late on Wednesday.
Despite 16 road closures, Maui’s airport was operating fully and airlines were dropping fares and offering waivers to get people off the island.
“We have now opened Honopilani Highway and Lahaina Bypass, which was shut down for most of the day to make sure that we get everybody to the airport,” he added.
Panicked evacuees shared harrowing photos on social media depicting clouds of smoke billowing over once-idyllic beaches and palm trees.
“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan trees and took everything with it. And I just ran out and helped everyone I could along the way,” said Dustin Johnson, who was in Lahaina Harbor working for a charter boat company.
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso described a harrowing escape Tuesday afternoon.
The couple and their six-year-old son grabbed a change of clothes and ran as the bushes around them caught fire.
“We barely made it out in time,” Kawaakoa said at an evacuation shelter on Wednesday.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything.”
Some people were forced to jump into the Pacific Ocean to escape the smoke and fire.
The Coast Guard said it rescued 14 people who dived into the water, including two children.
“Local people have lost everything. They’ve lost their house. They’ve lost their animals. It’s devastating,” said Jimmy Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
At least 20 people suffered serious burns and were flown to Oahu, Hawaii News Now reported.
“We have shelters that are overrun. We have resources that are being taxed,” Lieutenant Governor Luke said.
More than 2,100 people spent Tuesday night in evacuation centres. Another 2,000 travellers sheltered at Kahului Airport.
The White House issued a statement from president Joe Biden, who praised the work of firefighters and ordered “all available Federal assets on the Islands to help with response.”
The National Guard, US Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard were mobilised, while the US Department of Transportation helped evacuation efforts, Mr Biden said.
“Our prayers are with those who have seen their homes, businesses, and communities destroyed,” he added.
Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said on social media it was tough to see some of the images coming out of a place that is so special to many.
The cause in Maui was yet to be determined, but the National Weather Service said the fires were fuelled by a mix of dry vegetation, strong winds, and low humidity.