Mom of 3 loses everything in Maui wildfire except 1 photo

Aubrey Vailoces said her family's home in Lāhainā is now nothing but ashes.

Video byNidhi Singh
August 15, 2023, 4:28 PM

A woman on Maui who said she lost her home and all of her possessions in the wildfires that have devastated the island is clinging to one piece of hope, a single photograph that was found by a stranger on an island beach miles away.

The photo, found on the beach of Lāna'i, a small Hawaiian island several miles off the coast of Maui, shows Aubrey Vailoces at her high school graduation with her late great-grandmother, who raised her for much of her childhood.

Vailoces, a mom of three, told "Good Morning America" she believes her great-grandmother was responsible for the photo making it to Lana'i, showing her that amid the devastation, she's going to "get far too" and "be just fine."

"[The photo] got burned on the side, but my face and her face are just perfect. It wasn't even ruined," Vailoces said. "I don't know if it flew to Lana'i or it went through the ocean tide, no idea, but somehow it made it. It's just like a glimpse of hope."

PHOTO: A photo showing Aubrey Vailoces at her high school graduation was found on a beach after her home on Maui was destroyed by wildfires.
A photo showing Aubrey Vailoces at her high school graduation was found on a beach after her home on Maui was destroyed by wildfires.
@TikiTales/Twitter

Vailoces, 36, said the photo is the only thing she has left from her home, which she shared with her partner, three daughters and her mother, who had just moved in with them from Chicago earlier this year.

The whole family was at their home in Lāhainā last week when Vailoces said they heard fire alarms go off and looked outside to see their entire neighborhood covered in black smoke.

Worried about getting their kids -- a 10-month-old and 6-year-old twins -- to safety, the family jumped in their car and drove to the nearby home of Vailoces' partner's parents, who were out of town.

"We didn't take anything," Vailoces said of their rush to evacuate, which she said happened as she was breastfeeding her youngest child. "I didn't have any slippers. I was just in my nursing bra and underwear."

PHOTO: Aubrey Vailoces, of Maui, is pictured with her three daughters.
Aubrey Vailoces, of Maui, is pictured with her three daughters.
Courtesy of Aubrey Vailoces

The normally five-minute drive to her partner's parents' home took them two hours due to traffic from the many people trying to evacuate, according to Vailoces.

A few hours after they arrived, Vailoces said they began to hear sounds of people's cars and homes exploding in the fires and then heard police officers calling for evacuation.

They drove next to a relative's home, where they were able to safely spend the night, only to receive devastating news.

"The next day we heard that our house is completely ashes," Vailoces recalled, adding that they also learned her partner's parents' home was also destroyed by the fires.

PHOTO: Aubrey Vailoces is pictured with her three children and her partner at a fire station in Maui after their home was destroyed by wildfires.
Aubrey Vailoces is pictured with her three children and her partner at a fire station in Maui after their home was destroyed by wildfires.
Courtesy of Aubrey Vailoces

So far, the only item that Vailoces has seen from her home is the photo with her great-grandmother, which she said was stored in a decades-old photo album.

"My great-grandmother ... raised me from the Philippines when my parents were working here in the States," Vailoces said. "She composed this thick album of every birthday, graduations and hospital pictures and whatnot ... and that was the very last page of the album, because that's when I graduated high school and I was about to move to America with my parents."

The person who found on the photo on Lana'i shared it with friends and on social media, where Vailoces said a friend of hers saw it posted and shared it with her.

"He said, 'Somebody found that picture on Lana'i beach," Vailoces recalled. "That's when I realized everything is gone, because that picture is in a very thick [photo] album under the girls' bed, on the second floor."

Vailoces said she has not yet been able to have the photo returned to her because she has no mailing address and does not want to risk it getting lost. She and her family are currently staying temporarily in her brother's home on O'ahu.

Officials say much of Lāhainā, where Vailoces lived, was "destroyed" by the wildfires that erupted on Maui on Aug. 8. The inferno burned thousands of residential and commercial buildings to the ground and has become the deadliest natural disaster in state history.

PHOTO: Aubrey Vailoces' twin daughters watch a rainbow over their neighborhood in Maui.
Aubrey Vailoces' twin daughters watch a rainbow over their neighborhood in Maui.
Courtesy of Aubrey Vailoces

Vailoces said nearly her entire neighborhood was destroyed in the fires, describing what's left as "ashes."

She said she and her family plan to return to Lāhainā as soon as they are able to find a safe place to live so that her partner, a high school teacher, can resume work. Vailoces said her daughters' school was destroyed in the fires and her own business -- jewelry making -- was also destroyed with the loss of their home.

"I know people are praying for us and people feel bad for us and they are thinking about us right now, and I know in a few days they'll go back to their normal lives, just like I did when things were happening that I wasn't affected by," Vailoces said. "That's sad because we're going to [need] another 10 years to build our town. It takes about three years to build one house in Lāhainā because it's such a small town, and [we need] to build a whole community."

PHOTO: Aubrey Vailoces is pictured on a bike ride with her family the day before wildfires destroyed their Maui home.
Aubrey Vailoces is pictured on a bike ride with her family the day before wildfires destroyed their Maui home.
Courtesy of Aubrey Vailoces

Despite the hurdles ahead, Vailoces said the photo of her with her great-grandmother, the only photo she has left from her childhood, is providing hope that her family and her community will emerge stronger.

"My great-grandmother is so good at directing me with my life, so I think she somehow just gave me that very last picture just to give me hope that we'll make it, even if everything is gone," she said. "She always had that way when she was alive, to ensure me that everything is going to be OK."

ABC News' Izzy Alvarez contributed to this report.

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