Annelise Cochran before Tuesday's destructive Maui fire. Image Credit: Annelise Cochran/Washington Post

In the dark, cold water off Lahaina on Tuesday night, Annelise Cochran clutched one of her neighbours for warmth, both women shivering and struggling to breathe through the smoke and fumes.

Cochran felt like she was losing consciousness.

“I don’t know if it was the smoke or the cold or the fumes,” Cochran, 30, recounted in a telephone interview. “It was the closest I’ve felt to death.”

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Cochran and her neighbour survived the inferno in Lahaina by spending more than five hours in the water next to a rock wall at the edge of town. Another of their neighbours, an 86-year-old man who for a time survived nearby, did not live through the night, she said.

The fire that took the town was swift and brutal. Early that morning, Cochran had seen reports of a wildfire nearby, but that wasn’t unusual for Lahaina, where she has lived for seven years. In the afternoon, the wind whipped up, so strong that Cochran began taking videos of the flying leaves.

Cochran, a Maryland native who works as a training manager for an ocean conservation nonprofit, went to take a shower. When she dressed and went outside at around 4pm, the smoke was growing thicker and she began to hear fire alarms in nearby buildings going off.

There was no text message telling her to evacuate, no emergency siren, she said. Then, to her shock, she saw flames in a parking lot about a block away. She ran to her apartment to grab a few essentials and jumped into her car.

She turned toward the water, hoping to drive out of town to safety, but found the road blocked by abandoned cars. She picked up a tourist who later decided to leave her car because he wanted to head in a different direction than Cochran did; she never saw him again.

When the building next to her car began to burn, she said, she got out and headed for the water. She found two of her neighbours, a middle-aged woman named Edna and an 86-year-old man named Freeman, who had difficulty walking.

'I feared for those people’s lives'

They all went over the barrier wall, down to the hulking black rocks below to escape the flames.

They spent hours in the water, occasionally scrambling onto the rocks, trying to stay away from flying embers and noxious fumes, but also moving closer to the flames when they began to feel dangerously cold.

Cochran saw people grab debris and float off into deeper waters, which horrified her: She works on the ocean and knows the dangers of currents and hypothermia.

“People still chose just to drift out,” she said. “I feared for those people’s lives.”

The worst part of the ordeal, she said, came when cars along the shoreline began to explode, sending toxic fumes and intense heat rolling toward the water. That’s when Cochran and Edna felt near collapse. The women held each other as they shook and tried to stay awake, Cochran said. They talked about their families and promised each other they’d make it.

At one point, Cochran said, she called out to Freeman, who was a little further down the rocky beach, and asked how he was. He just smiled and made a shaka gesture with his hand - middle fingers down, thumb and little finger out - to indicate he was all right, even though Cochran knew he was suffering. Later, she said, she saw him slumped against the wall, unmoving. She believes he succumbed to the fumes.

“I just ache for his family,” Cochran said. She and several dozen other people were rescued from the water by firefighters around midnight and she has spent the last few nights at shelters. Her body is covered with bruises and lacerations; her feet and face are burned.

“I feel blessed to be alive,” she said.