May 23, 2024

Waking up on the other side of Maui from his home, Matt Kovach was alarmed by the deluge of text messages on his phone inquiring about his safety.

What he saw on a local news website only heightened his fears. Overnight, his neighborhood had burned to the ground. One thought ran through his head.

We’ve got to get home. I’ve got to go get my mom.

Kovach didn’t even know there was a fire when he left his 74-year-old mother the previous afternoon. A self-described compulsive workaholic, he couldn’t stand being stranded without internet and cellphone access because of the power outage that hit his neighborhood that morning.

It was the sort of small inconvenience that occasionally came with living in this land of wonders. From their seaside home, his family could watch whales leap from the water, feeling the impact of their massive bodies upon splashdown. A bonus for the UCLA alumnus was that his home was so close to the Lahaina Civic Center that he could walk to basketball games at the Maui Invitational whenever his beloved alma mater played there.

By the middle of that August afternoon, still stuck in a communication void, Kovach and his wife decided to take their two young boys to a friend’s home 45 minutes away. The power lines in that area were buried, ensuring internet access. They would stay for a few hours and come back, having seen a tweet from the local electric company saying that power should be restored by that evening, midnight at the latest.

Kovach informed his mother of the plan, leaving her with an assortment of essentials including a lantern, a head lamp, flashlights, several backup batteries and four bottles of water.

“Yep, no problem,” Linda Kovach told her son. “Completely fine.”

As the family headed out, it spotted smoke in the nearby hills. No big deal, they thought. That area was about five miles from their home. Besides, they were familiar with the heroic efforts of the Maui Fire Department, which five years earlier had extinguished blazes that threatened their home on three sides.

The first sign of trouble came when they found traffic at a crawl along Front Street. Cars moved so slowly that some people got out of their vehicles and walked. Looking back at that smoke, it had thickened considerably.

Should they go back and get mom? They decided against it, reasoning that her part-time caregiver was scheduled to arrive in the morning and in a worst-case scenario they could get in touch with a neighbor who could evacuate her once the power returned.

An aerial view of burned structures and cars in Lahaina two months after the town was devastated by wildfire.

An aerial view of burned structures and cars in Lahaina two months after the town was devastated by wildfire on the island of Maui.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Having finally reached their friend’s home 3½ hours after they left, they were soon marooned. Roads had closed. No problem, they thought. Mom has stayed overnight by herself before, she’s going to be fine. They would head home the next morning, probably finding the caregiver there when they arrived.

Then came those text messages and a jolt of panic. Frantic, Kovach woke up his wife.

“I’m just hysterical,” Kovach said, “because I think I killed my mom.”

Kovach had first moved to Maui on the eve of another disaster.

It was Sept. 10, 2001, and he was suffering from the burnout of intense hours working in the dot-com industry. He intended to recharge for a year, never expecting that the island would become a ghost town with the dropoff in tourism related to travel fears in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It was a breathtaking place with its clean air, warm water and moonbows that filled the nighttime sky. It was also a little too quiet for someone in his mid-20s seeking some excitement as part of that rejuvenation.

Kovach moved to Newport Beach, keeping in mind that he could always return to Maui once he had a family. In October 2015, having married fiancee Nicole six months earlier in Ka’anapali under a deep purple sky, the couple returned to the island for good.

Portrait of UCLA alumnus Matt Kovach with his wife, Nicole, and sons Alex and Carter.

UCLA alumnus Matt Kovach with his wife, Nicole, and sons Alex and Carter.

(Megan Hildebrand / White Lotus Photography)

They eventually purchased a five-bedroom home, big enough to accommodate Kovach’s mother who had been left partially paralyzed by a stroke suffered more than a decade earlier. Son Alex was born in 2016 and Carter in 2020.

Matt worked in website marketing and Nicole was a realtor, developing a deep network of contacts on the island. She used her connections to get center-court seats to the Maui Invitational in 2019 when UCLA played Brigham Young.

“My cousin sent me a picture of my wife and I about eight rows back behind Bill Walton,” said Matt, who was a senior in 1995 when the Bruins won their last national championship.

Paradise had its perils. The family became accustomed to high winds and hillside fires, especially after Hurricane Olivia caused severe damage in 2018. Surrounded by fires, the Kovach home survived thanks to the courage of tireless firefighters.

“I think that made everybody, including us,” Kovach said, “kind of complacent.”

Five years later, it was also why the family thought mom would be just fine on her own.

The Lahaina neighborhood the Kovach family lived in was almost completely wiped out by the Maui wildfire in August.
The Lahaina neighborhood the Kovach family lived in was almost completely wiped out by the Maui wildfire in August.
The Lahaina neighborhood the Kovach family lived in was almost completely wiped out by the Maui wildfire in August.
The Lahaina neighborhood the Kovach family lived in was almost completely wiped out by the Maui wildfire in August.

(Courtesy of Matt Kovach) The Lahaina neighborhood the Kovach family lived in was almost completely wiped out by the Maui wildfire in August. (Courtesy of Matt Kovach)

Helplessness overcame them that terrible morning as they made one call after another.

The police, fire department and Red Cross couldn’t provide any information about Matt’s mother. They were left to scour social media for any possible clue. Helicopter footage showed smoke hovering above their home, obscuring its fate.

The next day, a friend somehow managed to navigate the closed roads to take a look. All around were ashes. The home was intact.

But what about mom? Matt feared the worst.

“I was like, there’s no way,” he said. “She’s disabled, she’s a cancer survivor, a stroke survivor, she has osteoporosis, there’s no way that she’s going to survive this and I still have this incredible guilt and so now it’s like, now we know the house is there, how do we get someone there?”

It wasn’t until the following day — two days after the fire started — that cellphone service started to be restored in their neighborhood. They kept reaching out to everyone they knew who might be able to help.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I know somebody, I know somebody,’ and nothing is happening,” Matt said. “Nobody’s following through.”

A friend offered to hitch a ride on a boat delivering supplies to that part of the island before realizing that police had cordoned off the area and wouldn’t let him make the 15-minute walk from the dock to the home.

Finally, two friends who lived nearby offered to check on mom. Matt girded them for the possibility of a gruesome scene.

Entering the home, they found something else — Linda sitting in her wheelchair, completely unharmed.

“It’s about time,” she told the visitors. “I’m tired of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

The family would later learn that someone had died in a car about 30 feet from their home. The fire ran so hot that a neighbor’s safe built to withstand temperatures up to 1,800 degrees melted.

Mom endured, earning the nickname Lucky Linda.

Matt didn’t press her on the details of the ordeal, in part because he didn’t want her to have to relive it. She did say she breathed through a wet towel to limit smoke inhalation. She laid on the floor for stretches. She yelled when she heard someone outside. She also heard the explosions of car gas tanks and lithium ion batteries ignited by the flames.

Matt Kovach's mom, Linda, poses for a photo with her grandsons Alex, top, and Carter.

Matt Kovach’s mom, Linda Kovach, poses for a photo with her grandsons Alex, top, and Carter. Linda survived the Maui wildfire that devastated the town of Lahaina in August.

(Courtesy of Matt Kovach)

“I honestly have no idea how she made it,” Matt said.

Returning to the carnage surrounding his home induced crying spells. Matt felt guilt for leaving his mother. Guilt for his house having stood when many others didn’t. Guilt for the unimaginable suffering of those who lost everything amid a fire that reportedly killed nearly 100 people and displaced thousands more.

It remains unknown if the Kovach home will require a full teardown or if it can be restored given the ashy mess coating the interior. Either way, the family is among those fortunate enough to be fully insured.

They have spent the last three months moving from one place to another, recently settling into a three-bedroom townhome in Wailuku. Generous clients have sent clothes, toys and books while covering every cent of a GoFundMe established to cover living expenses.

There will be no walking to the Maui Invitational this week. The premier early season college basketball tournament was moved to Honolulu as part of efforts to raise money and awareness for those impacted by the fire. UCLA is part of what’s widely considered the best field in tournament history.

“A hundred percent happy they’re holding it,” Kovach said. “Life has to go on.”

As relieved as he feels for his good fortune, Kovach also remains consumed by incredible anger. Why wasn’t there an immediate evacuation order? Why did the electric company install wooden power poles next to the ones that burned five years earlier and expect a different outcome? Why was a teenage girl directing traffic out of town instead of an official from an emergency response team? What’s going to happen to the thousands of residents stranded in hotels? Will tourism, the lifeblood of this island, ever return to normal?

They’re important questions, the answers possibly years away. In the meantime, Kovach can comfort himself with two reminders.

He found his way home. His mom’s OK.

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