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Maui wildfire stories showcase team’s monthslong commitment despite daunting challenges

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A series of capstone
Maui wildfire stories that ran in the final week of 2023 — one focused on
Lahaina’s losses and another on its uncertain future — showcase fruits of the
extraordinary effort, commitment and selfless teamwork exhibited by the Pacific
Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii reporting team over months amid endless challenges
to share Lahaina’s plight with the world.

A series of capstone
Maui wildfire stories — one focused on Lahaina’s losses and another on its
uncertain future — was the culmination of months of painstaking beat work that
kept AP ahead with stories informed by on-the-ground reporting long after other
national news media had gone home.

The first story was an exploration of the community’s
trauma — and particularly the trauma to the vulnerable — told through the story
of a 78-year-old woman who died from smoke inhalation weeks after fleeing the
fire, and whose family fought to have her listed as the fire’s 100th victim.

Seattle-based Chief Correspondent Gene Johnson
artfully wove together the woman’s never-before-told story, using interviews
done by Anchorage reporter Mark Thiessen and Honolulu reporter Jennifer
Kelleher and medical records obtained by Kelleher via public records requests.
In a sign of the family’s trauma, only the woman’s widow was willing to talk
initially — the woman’s daughter refused to be photographed and the son
wouldn’t talk at all.

Seattle-based photographer Lindsey Wasson, who went
to Oahu and then to Maui to shoot both stories, spent hours with the widow and
daughter in Honolulu, ultimately getting frames of both, and then spent most of
her three days on Maui pressing hard to connect with the son. Wasson ultimately
connected with him just hours before she was to fly home — pushing back her
flight twice — and made haunting photographs of him holding his mother’s ashes
alongside his father and daughter.

Honolulu reporter Audrey McAvoy meanwhile sensitively
explored the uncertainty of Lahaina’s post-fire future through the eyes of the
displaced, including a server who quit her job after endless questions from
tourists about the fire. When Phoenix-based VJ Ty O’Neil volunteered to spend a
few hours working while on vacation in Maui, McAvoy connected him with the
server and also to a housing protest on a popular beach.

The resulting two-story series is the fruit of the
behind-the-scenes work by all involved over months that laid the groundwork for
the AP’s authoritative accounting of what Lahaina lost and what lies ahead. The
team treated the story like a beat from Day One and never let up, aggressively
developing sources, overcoming endless logistical hurdles and coordinating
across time zones and formats with dedication, commitment and selfless
teamwork.

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