Maui teacher helps former student escape deadly fire: 'Who knows if I would have made it'
"I trusted her, basically, with my life," the teen said.
Jackie Ellis, a beloved science teacher at Maui's Lahainaluna High School, was trying to evacuate from the fast-moving Lahaina fire when she stumbled across a former student. The teacher and teen opened up to ABC News about the harrowing day that they escaped the encroaching flames together, making it to safety as the blaze roared through their now-decimated town.
When the fire erupted, Ellis said, "Getting out was insane -- you just saw people running to and from their house, grabbing what they could."
With her two dogs in tow, Ellis drove to the front of her neighborhood. But the exit was blocked by a fallen tree so she, along with all her neighbors, were forced to turn to the only other way out.
"So you're just waiting to get let out of your neighborhood to hopefully go north," she explained. "And when that wasn't working, I just felt trapped, and fight-or-flight kind of kicked in. And I was like, 'All right, I got to go [south] if I can't go this way.'"
That's when she saw Joa Navarro, who graduated earlier this year from Lahainaluna High School.
Ellis taught Navarro, 18, all four years of high school and wrote college recommendation letters for him.
"He's very smart," Ellis said. "He also is very good at working with others. I knew I could put him in any group and he would work with that group and make everyone feel included."
"I've gotten to know his parents and his younger brother, as well, and they're amazing people," she added.
Navarro described Ellis as a kind-hearted teacher who is honest with her students and willing to give them life advice that extends beyond the classroom.
"She's like a life counselor, teacher, friend," he said.
On Aug. 8, Navarro had been napping in his car in a parking garage and woke up to find smoke billowing around him. He tried to drive out of Lahaina, but his car was low on gas.
Ellis said she was surprised to see Navarro pull up, but was relieved to see a familiar face.
"Having another human to be responsible for kind of made my brain be like, 'OK, focus and breathe and we got to get through this,'" she explained.
But Ellis couldn't roll down the window to talk to the teen because the air was too smoky. Then embers started flying, so Navarro followed her in his car.
"Once we got to the other side of the fire," Ellis said, "he pulled up beside me and he was like, 'Can I get in your car?' And I was like, 'Of course you can.'"
"I trusted her, basically, with my life," he said. "It was definitely more comforting to have her there."
As they sat in a line of cars, they talked through their escape options. Neither had cellphone service.
"We shouldn't turn around because we're going to drive into fire," Navarro said. "So we decided, even though it's moving slow, we're going to keep going south."
"It was surreal," Navarro said. "I'm so thankful to have had her there ... to, kind of, calm my nerves and having her just leading the charge."
With so many residents trying to escape along that same road, he said a typically five-minute drive took them an hour-and-a-half to reach a safe space.
The quick-moving blaze that ripped through Lahaina that day has claimed over 100 lives and leveled countless homes.
Ellis and her dogs are now staying at a hotel. While her house in Lahaina has no water or electricity, it is the only one still standing in the area.
"It's hard not to feel guilty. I have quite a few friends who lived in those houses that did burn down," she said. "I can't believe that I get to have so much when people that I know and love have lost literally everything except for, thankfully, their loved ones."
Navarro's home is about 20 minutes away from Lahaina and his family and their house are safe. The teen has since left to begin a new chapter as a freshman at the University of Utah.
Two weeks later, looking back on the harrowing day, Navarro is overwhelmed with gratitude for his former teacher's guidance.
"If I hadn't seen her, I don't know," he said. "I probably would have just stayed in traffic and just kept trying to go north. But who knows if I would have made it out."
ABC News' Steph Wash and Maria Villalobos contributed to this report.