Family of 14 loses Kihei home, vehicles to blaze

KIHEI – A family of 14 was homeless Friday afternoon after their five-bedroom Kihei home went up in flames in a violent fire that included several vehicles exploding.

“My room is gone,” said Toa Tongi, 18, who was in the living room when the fire started. “By the time I got outside, the fire was as tall as the house.”

Lusitania Tongi and his wife, Selita, are the owners of the property and house that burned on Oe Street. The couple was at work when the fire started at around 4:30 p.m. with the majority of their 12 children at home, family members said.

“All the kids, they ran outside,” said Tania Tongi, 15, who saw his house go up in flames from the next door neighbor’s house. “We called 911 and tried to hose it down to make it smaller, but then the wind picked up.”

The fire began at the back of the house, where the family had four cars parked – a boom truck, a pickup truck, a large white van and another car. Three of the cars burned and exploded in the fire.

“I heard something creak, and I told my aunty to go to the front and right then – boom,” Toa Tongi said. “It was really, really loud. . . . The house felt like it was shaking.”

The entire neighborhood could hear the explosions, including Andy Soliven, who lives directly across the street from the house. Soliven said he sprinted down a back road to see the fire in the backyard of the home.

“I got there and one of the old cars wen’ blow up, so I ran right back here,” he said standing at his house. “It (the fire) wen’ spread fast. In no time at all, I saw the roof collapse.”

Toa Tongi rescued the large family van from the flames but could not reach the other vehicles.

“I was trying to move out the main trucks and boom truck, but all I could get out was our big white van,” she said. “By the time I got out and tried to go to the back, the fire was already on the boom truck.”

A cottage, which the owners rent out to a family of two adults and four children, is located in front of the house and was undamaged in the fire.

Althea Mamao, who lives in the cottage, said she returned home from work shortly after the fire started and was cut off by a police officer near her driveway.

“I got out, and then I heard the first boom,” she said of one of the vehicles exploding. “The house just looked like a wave of flames. The police was even panicking. They were running around and telling everyone to get back.”

Mamao said her first thoughts were for her children because the fire was “escalating fast.” She added that her sister was baby-sitting her children and that they helped police officers escort others away from the house and cottage.

When police directed the families to the street, Toa Tongi realized that they were missing their 1-year-old brother.

“He was sleeping in the cottage,” she said. “So we had to run back and get him and all came outside.”

Lusitania Tongi and his wife were selling crafts and tikis at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa when the fire started. The father rushed back home from the resort after receiving a call from Toa Tongi.

“I told them to make sure all the kids are out and not to worry what happens with the house. Just make sure everyone is OK,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to stay here. We’ll see what we have to do tonight and later.”

Members of the American Red Cross in Maui County assisted the Tongi family with food, water, clothes and other essentials, said Michelle Liberty, county director. She said the family will be placed in a hotel for a couple of nights to give them time to make other living arrangements.

All that remained of the two-story house after the fire was the bottom floor. The upper floor was where all the bedrooms were, family members said.

Neighbors and some of the family’s children said they heard crackling and popping noises when the fire started. The cause of the fire was due to fireworks, said Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga on Friday night.

Toa Tongi added that the fire may have been fueled by dry grass and woodshavings, a result of her father’s work as a craftsman.

Damage was listed as $400,000 to the structure; $50,000 for contents; and $70,000 for vehicles and other equipment, Mainaga said.

Fire officials got the call at 4:30 p.m, he said. The fire was under control at 5:20 p.m. and extinguished at 8:42 p.m.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at