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A Maui family deals with the grief of losing their son in the fire

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

On Friday, officials in Maui said they had combed through 99% of the wreckage that remains in Lahaina. Meanwhile, the number of people confirmed dead remained the same, with many families waiting to find out if their loved ones are among those who've been identified. For one mother who raced through the fire to find her son, the pain has moved from not knowing to grieving. NPR's Vanessa Romo has the story. And please be mindful of more sensitive ears that may also be listening this morning.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Luz Vargas had been making party plans for her adopted son, Keyiro Fuentes. He was about to turn 15. But on his birthday last weekend, she found herself putting together a memorial service for him instead. On the day of the fires, Keyiro was home alone, says Vargas, who only speaks Spanish. Both she and Keyiro are from Mexico.

LUZ VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: She says since classes for juniors hadn't started yet, he'd slept in. The rest of the family, including Vargas, her husband Andres, and their middle son Josue, were all working nearby. They run a cleaning service for hotels and apartments. When the blaze engulfed Lahaina, they jumped in their car, bolting toward their burning neighborhood. But with the traffic jam and the fire moving so rapidly, they soon had to abandon it.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Vargas says everyone was running away from the flames, but they ran toward them. They split up so that at least one of them might be able to reach Keyiro, who they thought might be sleeping. On the way to the house, a woman grabbed hold of Vargas and pleaded with her to stop.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: "Don't go. The fires consumed everything," Vargas remembers her saying. But she kept going. She told the woman, I want to save my son.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: She sprinted up a series of winding streets. The soles of her flip-flops started to melt. She chucked them off. A man on a motorbike offered to drive her to the edge of the fire. She says she hopped on behind him, reciting prayer after prayer.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Around them, she says, the fire was devouring houses and cars. Birds were falling from the sky. The man took her up to where firefighters were battling the flames.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: She says that police barricading the area wouldn't let her through. Have faith that your son got out, they told her. In response to a request for comment on what happened that day, the Maui Police Department told NPR they'll provide an after-action report at a later time. For the next two days, Vargas and her husband say they searched for Keyiro at local shelters, hitching rides from friends after their car burned. But mostly they waited for the boy to turn up at a local park that's been a hub for survivors.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Then on August 10, Vargas says two friends told her they'd snuck into her house and that they'd found Keyiro. He was dead. She wanted to see him for herself. She and her husband went to the house. They found Keyiro's charred body on a pile of debris in what had been his bedroom. Vargas closed her eyes to describe what she'd seen.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: She says the boy was face down on the ground. The family dog was lying just inches away. She let out a howl and a supplication. She asked God to embrace him.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Andres Garcia, Vargas' husband, says he then wrapped their son's body in a tarp that he found amid the debris.

ANDRES GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Garcia says he took Keyiro to police and that they told him they'd remove the boy from the unaccounted-for list. They also said they'd be in touch once the boy's remains could be released to a funeral home. But for two weeks, the family says they heard nothing. Keyiro's name still has not appeared on the official list of victims. NPR emailed and called the Maui Police Department several times last week, asking them to confirm that they had received Keyiro's body from his family. They initially did not respond. Then, during a press conference on Tuesday, one of NPR's producers asked Maui Police Chief John Pelletier why the names of victims who had been recovered by family members were not being added to the list of confirmed dead. By that time, NPR had reported Keyiro's story. Here's what the police chief said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PELLETIER: So I heard a story today for the first time - I have no basis in fact on this - that somebody said that they recovered a family member and took them to a police station. We don't know anybody that that happened to. I can't find that.

ROMO: But the next day, the department issued a press release saying they could confirm that a Lahaina family had recovered their son's body and delivered it to police. They did not name Keyiro and wouldn't when NPR followed up by email. But they did say that they'd obtained a DNA sample from, quote, "the individual's biological relative in Mexico," which they'd need to make a positive identification. In the meantime, Vargas kept her promise to Keyiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TULUM")

PESO PLUMA AND GRUPO FRONTERA: (Singing in Spanish).

ROMO: She held a 15th birthday celebration for her son at the park where he took his first steps. About 60 people turned up. There was chocolate cake and pozole.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Happy birthday, Keyiro.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Vargas says she can feel Keyiro's spirit all around her. His baby face appears to her in dreams to tell her that he's OK. She tells him he'll never suffer again.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMO: Vargas tells him to wait. One day she'll leave this earth too, and they'll be together again.

Vanessa Romo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "ENERGY FLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.

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