Cell phone photos and some metadata. A son's search for his mother in Maui
MAUI, Hawaii — Four blurry photos of what appear to be an ash gray night sky are digital breadcrumbs Jason Musgrove has followed in search of his missing mother.
The photos are the last signs of life Linda Vaikeli shared on the afternoon of Aug. 8 from Maui, just a couple of hours before parts of the island was engulfed in a historic wildfire that has claimed the lives of at least 106 people as of Tuesday evening.
Six days later, Musgrove boarded a plane from Houston to the island, desperate to find his 69-year-old mother.
"It's been absolute agony," he told NPR, on a 9 a.m. connecting flight to the island from Los Angeles. "Not knowing anything is the hardest part."
Musgrove hasn't slept in days. He's been working relentlessly to get in touch with friends and neighbors and emergency shelters; anyone who may have seen his mother since the day the fires began ravaging the waterfront community of Lahaina. Her apartment building is one block from Front Street, which is now a charred husk — all but non-existent now.
"I've been working nonstop trying to figure out what happened — trying to retrace her steps. I felt like a detective," Musgrove said, rubbing his eyes and sinking into the tiny economy class seat.
Vaikeli, who lives on the island with Musgrove's stepfather, is diabetic and has mobility issues. She needs a cane or walker to get around her apartment, "and when she's out, she's in a wheelchair," Musgrove explained.
On the day after the fire was contained, Musgrove reached a neighbor who said that he saw her being escorted out of her apartment building by two women.
It was a glimmer of hope.
"That means she made it out of the apartment," Musgrove reasoned.
A digital epiphany
A week earlier, Musgrove had helped Vaikeli set up her very first iCloud account, which meant he had her username and password. He decided to check for any photos she may have uploaded to the cloud. He assumed that if she was in danger, she may have taken pictures. That's when he found the grainy photos.
The metadata offered a small cache of information. "I saw four pictures at 2:04 p.m. And it showed me the exact location of where the picture was taken. So I took that information, and then I transitioned it over to latitude and longitude to get the exact coordinates," Musgrove recounted.
The data was useful but confusing. The blaze that ultimately devoured the idyllic coastal town began closer to 3:30 p.m. Smaller fires had been reported as early as 6:30 a.m. but those had been put out, according to officials.
Still, Musgrove relayed the information that he'd found to the U.S. Coast Guard, which, at that point, was the only group that had returned his frantic phone calls, Musgrove said.
"The Coast Guard was really going above and beyond," he said, adding that when he gave the official the coordinates, "he told me that they've been scouring the area pretty heavily."
He added: "I'm hoping that she's in the shelter and just annoyed with her accommodations. And it's like, 'Oh, my God, I'm gonna ... someone's gonna come and get me!'"
Laundry and love
The story of how Linda Vaikeli ended up living in Lahaina is one of a whirlwind romance.
During the summer of 1997, Vaikeli and her two sons, including Musgrove, were living in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks. She wanted a getaway to paradise so she planned a two-week vacation with Musgrove's grandmother to Maui.
At some point during her stay, she needed a clean change of clothes.
"She was doing laundry in the Royal Lahaina resort laundry room, and she met my stepfather while he was doing laundry," Musgrove said.
Apparently, it was love at first suds, he said. His mother was swept away.
"I'm in love! I'm moving to Hawaii!," she declared to her sons upon her return.
Two weeks later, she packed up her life to start a new chapter.
"So my mom took off and they got married," Musgrove said, his voice growing shaky with the memory. "He is a very, very good man. He looks very massive and intimidating, but he's a big teddy bear."
Separated before tragedy struck
Twenty-six years later, Musgrove said the couple is rarely apart.
On the day the fires swept through Lahaina, his stepfather had a doctor's appointment. Vaikeli was tired and opted to stay home for a nap.
"By the time he got out of this doctor's appointment, they had shut the roads down. And so he couldn't get back to the other side of the island," Musgrove said.
Calls to the apartment landline and Vaikeli's cell phone went unanswered.
Now, Musgrove said, his stepfather is beside himself with worry.
"Every time I speak to him, he's sobbing. He feels like he dropped the ball because he left and he feels like he should have made her go, but she was the boss," Musgrove said.
Bullheaded and positive
On the plane, Musgrove's eyes were bloodshot. He clenched and unclenched his fists, then clasped his hands together, gripping them tightly.
Officials have shut down nearly all access to the burn areas, and they've limited access to West Maui.
Search-and-rescue teams have now transitioned to search-and-recovery teams with about 20 search dogs combing through the rubble and debris. The number of people confirmed dead could double over the next few days. Thousands of structures, mostly homes, have been reduced to wreckage.
Meantime, Musgrove took a gulp of air and said, "I know most people might say she's gone, that there's no way she's still alive, but I'm staying positive. She could be in a shelter somewhere without her phone, without an ID, and the reason she hasn't called is because no one remembers phone numbers anymore."
Musgrove has made several contingency plans. While waiting for his connecting flight in Los Angeles, he received an email confirming the Red Cross had cleared his background check, meaning he is officially a volunteer for the organization. That, he said, would guarantee him a placard, which officials said would be necessary to get through the two key checkpoints into West Maui.
But hours after that system went into effect, officials canceled it, reporting that they were overwhelmed by residents and volunteers who showed up.
Before getting off the plane, Musgrove choked back tears.
"I'm bullheaded and I don't give up," he said. "I think that most men would do the same thing for their mom."
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