Behind covering the Maui wildfire toll

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The fire that engulfed the town of Lahaina, Maui, in early August destroyed a large part of a favorite place with a deep history for native Hawaiians. At least 98 people are believed to have died in the fire, the country’s deadliest in more than 100 years.

Korina Knoll traveled to Maui to cover the tragedy for The New York Times, and spent time talking with residents who lost relatives in the fire and learning about one family’s harrowing escape. We asked her via email what it was like to report on such a painful experience. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you find the family you wrote about?

The Tone family posted some details about themselves on the GoFundMe page, and I began to dig deeper because it seemed especially heartbreaking that four people from the same household died – and one was a 7-year-old boy. It was also important to me to write about a working-class Pacific Islander family, because I always hope to shine a light on the lives of people of color. The workforce that sustains Maui’s tourism industry deserves to be highlighted. At first I couldn’t get in touch with them, but eventually I got a pastor who helped me connect with them.

Disasters are hard to report. How did you approach the conversation with this family? What kind of sensitivity did you have in mind?

There is a very strange and hard line that we try to get the victims’ families to talk to us. They are going through the worst time of their lives, and a stranger asks them to open up. But we are on the ground for a limited number of days and we are very aware that the world’s attention will soon move on. I tell people very gently that if they want to tell their story, time is of the essence.

At first it seemed that Folau Tone did not want to meet. When I got to Maui, we started communicating mostly through text. His answers were usually short and vague, and it was hard to tell what he was up to. But I realized, he didn’t tell me to leave, so I kept checking on him.

I tried to make it clear that I wanted to tell a sensitive story that would hopefully honor his family members. He finally agreed to an interview at his hotel. I ended up talking to him and his wife Sabrina for several hours.

I will always be grateful that they talked to me. Stories like theirs are so priceless. It revealed how harrowing and terrifying the escape was for the survivors and how much was truly lost.

What was it like to be on Maui and see the devastation of the wildfire firsthand?

When I arrived, three weeks after the fire, parts of Lahaina were closed, but you could still see burned areas and burned cars that had been abandoned. There was a row of white crosses, each for a victim. It was strange to be on a beautiful island that was beset by tragedy.

But there was also such a community in action: makeshift centers where volunteers cooked food and played music and tried to create an atmosphere of peace and togetherness. I attended a memorial service for a 28-year-old father, and his family later invited me to their home. They were so warm and open and the night was filled with laughter and sincerity. It felt like something that could only happen in a place like Hawaii.

Is it emotional for you to work on these stories? How do you deal with what you feel?

When Folau spoke, it brought me to tears. But that emotion tells me that the story is important, and I use it as I write. That’s one way to deal with the problem — you’ll be able to put it on paper.

It can be a comprehensive process because I take such stories personally, which is admittedly not healthy. But I feel a great responsibility to write something that is worthy of the trust someone has placed in me.

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