A DeKalb County couple escaped the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Ronnie and Theresa Turner of Liberty were on vacation in Maui’s historic seaside community of Lahaina in Hawaii August 7-12 when the fire broke out. They were planning to have an early celebration of their 20th wedding anniversary coming up in November, but instead the couple faced a series of harrowing ventures to survive the wildfires that at last count claimed the lives of 115 people.
Ronnie, the brother of well-known local ventriloquist David Turner, and his wife, Theresa recounted to the Smithville Review this riveting journey, giving full credit to God for sparing them from the devastation.
Day One, Monday August 7
After being up for at least 25 hours traveling from Liberty to their condo, Ronnie and Theresa crashed in bed. The couple had planned to chill out for a beach day or two before they started sightseeing.
Day 2 Tuesday August 8
“We were going to wait until later in the week because we had been running for this period of time and were tired,” Ronnie Turner explained. “At five o’clock in the morning, Maui time, I was already awake and the power shut down. Palm trees were swaying outside.”
“We headed south toward the main part of Lahaina and since all of the electricity was off, all the traffic lights had become four-way stops. We went through a few of those, and then got to a major intersection. The police were guiding people through that one and when we had gotten through that, and it was still congested. We made a U-turn and went north, and finally we got to an area where the electricity was back on, and got something to eat at a little grocery store that was packed. After breakfast they headed north on the treacherous Kahekili Highway, a single lane Road with 2-way traffic that they later discovered was one of the most dangerous in the world.
“You had the ocean cliffs on one side, and the rock bluffs on the other side, and were getting those falling rock signs and hairpin curves,” Ronnie said.
At this point the Turners had no idea there was a raging wildfire spreading across the city until they arrived at another business.
“We went in there and talked to the folks. We said, ‘Our power is out.” Yes, they said and the wildfires. We’re like, “What?! We had no idea!
The Turners decided to take the South loop to LaHaina to return to the Condo where they were staying, but on their way they saw smoke billowing out.
“It was just blowing across the road because the winds were blowing--- from what we’ve heard---60 to 80 miles per hour. We were sitting in traffic, and it was blowing the car all over the place.”
Stuck in their rented Kia Sorento, eventually, the Turners were able to make a Uturn, trying to find “civilization” again.
“It was very remote,” Theresa said. “The wind was so high it was causing little tornadoes out on the water.”
“We didn’t even know where to go or what to do,” Ronnie added.
“We prayed and this is where we made the decision to not stay here. We’re not going to get through,” Theresa continued. “Let’s turn around.”
The Turners were never in sight of the flames, but the smoky evidence was clear. They had to find a safe passage out, but how?
“We credit God for getting us out before we even knew we had a problem,” Ronnie thankfully says. “I know that other people weren’t as fortunate. We’ve had all kinds of people praying for us all the time, even before this happened, and then many more after.”
Adding to their concerns was the fact that the batteries in Theresa’s portable oxygen that she uses to help with her COPD desperately needed to be charged. They tried again to find another way out.
“We just knew we flew into O.G.G. Airport; we didn’t even know what city we were in,” Ronnie remembers. “So we wind up back in this city, and we’re knocking around, and we don’t even know ‘til later that we’re only two miles from the airport, which is probably one of the best parts on the narrow part of the island so that was a blessing.”
“That was a God thing too,” Theresa says. “I really think it was.”
“Ronnie was still holding out that we were going to go back in [to our condo room] and get our stuff,” Theresa said. “We weren’t hearing everything. We knew there were wildfires, but we didn’t know LaHaina was the main path at that time or anything. I held out hope for a while, but I knew we had to have clothes for the next day. So, we visited Walmart.”
“And it was a total zoo,” Theresa said. “We were getting around people and beginning to hear things. I had heard at one point there were 30 electric poles down. We started hearing people’s stories that they had set up shelters. We knew that there were a lot of displaced people, travelers and residents. We knew we’re not going to get back in even before we knew how devastating that the fire was.”
While Theresa grabbed a few essentials, Ronnie searched online for shelter. Fortunately, he was able to secure a room but it was for the next night. That night they slept in the rental car in a small well-lit parking lot along with other people sleeping in their cars that had befriended them. They all watched out for each other. They did get to stay for a few hours in a nearby hotel’s common area that allowed them to recharge the batteries to Theresa’s oxygen for a few hours.
Day 3. Wednesday August 9
The following day the Turners waited in a nearby mall with a group of friends they made that were from Colorado, until they could check into their hotel room.
“We all talked and made the best of it. We stayed in an air-conditioned room in the mall. We were very thankful when 4 o’clock rolled around, and we got to go in and take a bath for the first time since Sunday night. To show God’s provision for us while we were there, on the day that we first got there, we stayed in this beautiful condo,” Theresa said. “They had this big beautiful bathroom with a big walk-in shower. I was like, ‘Oh, no! There’s not a tub.’ We’re tub people. Oh, well, we can do anything for a week. Little did I know when I said that, what we would be going through that week.”
The new room was a welcome sight, but the Turners say God gave them an extra blessing.
“Since I’ve had surgery on my arm, I’ve had to sleep in a recliner,” Theresa said. “We unlocked that door and walked in, and there was a recliner. I have never seen a recliner in a hotel room. Thank you, Jesus! I looked at Ronnie and said, “Let’s check out the bathroom.’ And there was my tub.”
Day 4, Thursday August 10
Cleaned and somewhat rested, the Turners restarted their journey to leave the island.
“We had heard there were extra flights coming in to get people off the island so that the resources for the people that lived on the island would have enough. Let’s see if we can get a flight.”
On the way there Ronnie was considering whether it would be better to return the rental car to short-term parking or turn it back in to the company. They turned the car in.
“We’re standing in the full-service line because we had to try to get everything taken care of,” Ronnie recalls. “And the people standing beside us started a conversation.”
The folks from Texas informed the Turners that a make-shift shelter at a nearby high school had doctors on site to provide health care.
“Theresa had left all of her medications for the spasming in her arm, and medication for her chronic autoimmune pancreatitis back in the room in Lahaina. Our new friend said if you’ll go there, they’ll take care of you.”
When the Turners made it up to the counter at the airport, they were told no flights were available that day or the next.. With no ticket to take off and their rental car returned, transportation became an issue.
“I guess we’ve got to get a taxi,” Ronnie said. “Theresa says we’re actually paid up through Saturday, so we decided to see if we could get the lease car back. They [rental car company] hadn’t checked our vehicle back in physically through the system. ‘Your’s isn’t really processed, but we can give you another.’ So, that was a Godsend.”
Thursday afternoon was really the first time Ronnie and Theresa could take a breath and relax.
“We were just laying low,” Theresa says. “We knew the full impact of the devastation that was going on. I didn’t even think in the terms of vacation [any more]. My heart was just so heavy for those poor people. They had been through so much already and still going through it. Not just losing their homes, but they’re losing their family, and they’re losing everything they’ve got.”
One of the residents they chatted with at McDonald’s when they stopped for ice cream.
“I met this wonderful lady there,” Theresa says. “She was so precious and so sweet. She had ridden the bus to come in. Since the air quality was so bad, she couldn’t open her widows, and she didn’t have air conditioning. She needed her breathing medication. We sat and caught up with her for a while, and when we started to leave, we just hugged. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. She was another God wink.”
Day 5, Friday August 11
On Friday Ronnie and Theresa went to the shelter. “It was just a sea of cots,” Theresa says. “In this gymnasium people were outside, unloading more stuff. They had this room full of pillows and blankets, and there were all sorts of food sitting there for anybody to take what you wanted. Starbucks had come in with fresh coffee. Everybody was just trying to help each other. I saw so much of that over there. It was all for one and one for all.”
“My daughter, Tia, had called Justin Hooper at Webb’s to email me a list of my meds, so I could show the doctors. He wrote what we needed. We went to Walgreens to get it filled.”
Their waiting process continued with the prescriptions before the Turners headed back to the hotel.
“We both had an upset stomach at different parts of the day,” Theresa says. “I had an upset stomach that morning, and he had it that afternoon.”
“It makes you so happy about taking a flight,” Ronnie adds, sarcastically.
“The evening before we had bought a party tray,” Theresa said. “It had crackers; it had cheese; it had ham and turkey. We ate off that two or three times.”
Returning to Walmart a second time, the couple picked up a backpack and a small piece of luggage to put their stuff in. They began packing what they had remaining with the hope of getting off the island.
Day 6, Saturday August 12
On Saturday morning the Turners went back to the airport for their flight out.
“Right before we walked out, we prayed,” Theresa said. “We did make a tape for our girls in case we died.”
Ronnie and Theresa believe God had His hands on them the entire time.
“I’ve seen pictures of lines of cars that were just wiped out,” Ronnie says. “I don’t know if they were parked in the street or they were in a traffic jam or what, or if people got out. But we were headed to the direction that the main fires were, but I believe God turned us around. I can just hear God say, “‘These people are just too stupid, I’m just going to have to get them out.”
Adds Theresa, “I don’t believe they’ve learned their lesson. They haven’t been here long enough.” (both laugh) With shifting winds around the area of the wildfires, there were times the Turners’ story could have ended with tragedy.
“I don’t know if you’d call it fear, but there were thoughts of ‘what-if’” Ronnie admits. “You go to sleep at night, and you hope the emergency system is working over here.”
Theresa says the enormity of the situation truly hit her when the Southwest plane pulled in for them.
“Okay, we’re going to go home. When we got on the airplane, and it started taxiing down the runway, I started crying. I fell apart. I hold up good during bad things like that, but when it’s over with, that’s when I just go to pieces.”
They landed in Nashville on the last flight into BNA that night.
“I never was so glad to hit Tennessee in my life,” Theresa says. “That day I could have just kissed the ground in that hot, humid Tennessee weather. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be home.”
As horrific as it was dodging the wildfire’s destructive path, it was an experience for the Turners that gave them a deeper appreciation for God.
“I’ve had a lot of issues health wise, and it’s really been hard on me,” Theresa says. “I’m like, ‘God, where are you?’ In hindsight of all of this it was like God spoke to me and said, ‘I’m here. I’ve got you.’ For me, even when we don’t realize that God is there, He’s watching over us. I know people lost their lives and everything they had. I don’t know God’s ways. They’re bigger than ours, but I do know God’s hand was on us the whole time we were there, and absolutely no doubt about it.”
“I second guess everything,” Ronnie adds. “I wonder should I do this or should I do that. Did I do the right thing? God had things mapped out for us where I didn’t have to think about it. He had it all under control before I even knew I had a problem. So, why am I worrying about the problems I do know about?”
“We really want to thank our family, Smithville Cumberland Presbyterian Church, our friends, our Facebook friends, our life group, and hundreds of people from other churches that put us on their prayer lists, and our girls.”