(NewsNation) — “Like a continuous bomb going off” — That’s how Mike Cicchino remembers the Maui wildfires and his fight to survive in Lahaina. As flames erupted, Cicchino and his wife jumped into the crashing waves and spent more than three hours in the ocean.
“Being on fire, not knowing where land is, at points, the currents pulling us out where we can’t touch the ground,” Cicchino told “NewsNation Prime” host Natasha Zouves. “At times, I remember just telling her to make sure that she saves herself. ‘Don’t worry. If I start drowning out here, you save yourself.’ It’s the most terrifying experience of our life.”
Cicchino lived in one of Lahaina’s more inland neighborhoods. Tuesday afternoon, he briefly left his home to check the power lines in the area and quickly realized his neighborhood was engulfed in flames.
“As I’m kind of driving around the neighborhood, and we got 15 seconds into the neighborhood, everything’s on fire,” Cicchino said.
He rushed back to his home to grab his wife and the five dogs they were watching. Out of fear that a call with 911 may drop, he called his mother for help.
“I made the last-ditch effort to call my mom, had her call 911 because she’s on another part of the island that had reception. She said 911 said just follow traffic,” Cicchino said.
But he said the direction of traffic was where the fire seemed to be headed.
“You could see that the fire was getting pushed towards the ocean and pushed north and that’s where we were getting pushed,” Cicchino said.
As the fire rapidly grew, authorities were blocking roads due to downed power lines. Cicchino knew he couldn’t stay there.
“Unfortunately, all of our routes were basically blocked by police and it pigeonholed and forced us down into Lahaina town on Front Street, which is an absolute deathtrap,” Cicchino recalled.
With nowhere left to go, Cicchino and his wife jumped into the ocean to escape the blaze.
“There are points where we were starting to pass out and we were about to drown. Then, we got to come to shore. The cars parked next to shore caught on fire or were exploding. It was a leapfrog of fire. Go out, we’re getting burned. Come in, go out. Everywhere, we were getting burned or we couldn’t breathe,” Cicchino told Zouves.
The vicious cycle lasted roughly 12 hours before the Coast Guard rescued Cicchino and his wife at around 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Once he got a signal, Cicchino immediately called his mom back.
“When I spoke with her, I broke down. When she came and got me, I broke down again,” Cicchino remembered. “We couldn’t stop hugging each other. We were afraid to stop hugging each other.”
Cicchino said he received “no warning at all” before the fires and feels like it “could have been prevented.” Hawaii’s Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office will be conducting a review of the decision-making and standing policies surrounding the wildfires.
The blaze is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. The death toll has risen to 96 people, as crews with cadaver dogs have covered just 3% of the search area so far.