‘I Have to Do Better.’ A Young Father Was Rebuilding His Life When the Flames Came.

There is much to say about a 28-year-old father who died.

Start with his troubles — the kind that left him struggling with a drug habit and put distance between him and his two boys. Yes, he made disappointing choices.

Start with those details, because they illustrate the beauty of a young man with a well-meaning heart who yearned to do better and regretted his mistakes. A man who checked in often on his family, who dreamed of playing the ukulele in front of crowds, who had an optimistic spirit that could not be broken.

His name was Po’omaika’i Estores-Losano. And he strove for the day when his narrative would be one of change, his friends and relatives say. Time, he believed, stretched out before him.

But the fire on Maui would steal at least 98 lives — a staggering number of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, children. Over the last two months, their names have been revealed in a slow and unsettling trickle. Now, all but one have been identified, based on the remains that have been recovered.

Each name was a story raw and unfinished. Some were on the cusp of the unknown, still trying to figure out who they might become.

For Mr. Estores-Losano, an early death would mean he could never fully atone for a rocky past.

Flowers were placed at the cross for Mr. Estores-Losano at a memorial to victims along a bypass road in Lahaina. Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

He had been living in Lahaina with roommates, working at a booth that sold discount experiences to tourists. He got a kick out of interacting with people, waving them over to describe the greatest luau or helicopter tour or whale watching excursion.

Mr. Estores-Losano, whose roots were Hawaiian and Filipino, hoped to work as a musician and had added a keyboard and a guitar to his repertoire. He was inspired by Hawaiian music and a local version of reggae.

Friends knew him for a blithe personality that was both thoughtful and bubbly. Some called him “Mr. Aloha,” because of how he warmed up a room. He would grin, throw up the shaka sign and greet strangers with a flippant but jovial, “Who are you?”

There was no one else who had his chest-vibrating chortle — irritating and contagious at the same time, it announced his presence before he appeared.

It was back while he attended Henry Perrine Baldwin High School that Mr. Estores-Losano began experimenting with drugs. As he nursed a broken ankle and was sidelined from football, he sought solace in self-medication. He later grew attached to crystal meth.

That kicked off years of trying to escape an addiction. He would get clean. Then relapse. Then try again to break free, renewed with purpose. “No worries, no stress, love you,” he liked to say.

It was easy to root for him, if hard to watch.

“I loved him because of his struggles,” said Kaliko Leialoha-Dutro, 30, his friend since junior high. The two were once roommates and liked to go cliff jumping or wander around downtown Lahaina. He recalled that after Mr. Estores-Losano became a father at 22, he talked of becoming closer with his sons and wanting to teach them to surf.

Mr. Estores-Losano’s mother, right, and his brother. Mr. Estores-Losano longed especially to make his younger siblings proud. Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Mr. Estores-Losano’s path, in some ways, mirrored that of his mother, Leona Castillo. She was just 14 years old and a freshman in high school when she gave birth to him.

Her parents wanted to give her a chance to grow up, so they adopted and raised Mr. Estores-Losano. As a teenager, he teased his mother that they were more like siblings.

The two saw much of themselves in the other. They were both known to be loud and lively. They butted heads but loved with the same ferocity. Ms. Castillo had also grappled with a drug addiction.

She walked away from meth 11 years ago, only to watch her son fall into the same trap. She hoped the pivot in her journey could serve as an example.

It did. By last December, Mr. Estores-Losano appeared to finally be in a better place. He had stayed with family members in New Jersey and Las Vegas and attended rehab. When he returned to Maui, there was a new light in his eyes.

“We knew he would change his life around,” said Ms. Castillo, 43, who manages a Subway sandwich shop on Oahu. “He never wanted us to worry.”

Mr. Estores-Losano was keenly aware of how often he had let his family down. He longed especially to make his two younger siblings proud.

He constantly texted them cheerful greetings and wanted to know how everyone was doing. The barrage of messages could be grating, but it also made them feel connected.

“We were all separated, and he was trying to keep us close,” said his brother, Braeden Estores-Castillo, 22, who lives on Oahu and works as a hula dancer and a cook. He still thinks of how, a month before the fire, his brother eagerly called him with a list of goals that included becoming financially stable.

Their sister, Jayna Barut, had moved to Pennsylvania in April with her husband. She saw Mr. Estores-Losano before she left. He tried to convince her to stay.

Mr. Estores-Losano’s mother sorting through family photos of him. The two saw much of themselves in the other. Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

“He always depended on me,” said Ms. Barut, 25, who works at Walmart and at a nursing home. “But he didn’t realize I depended on him too. He was the glue for us. I never thought I’d have to live without him.”

She recalled how her brother was determined to be a better father to his sons Makanaokeakua, 6, and Kamakani, 5. “I have to do better,” he told her.

After living in a homeless shelter for a few months and juggling jobs as a cook at two restaurants, Mr. Estores-Losano had saved some money and was able to rent a room in a house earlier this year. He was, it seemed, reshaping his life.

But on Aug. 8, flames came for the heart of Lahaina.

Mr. Estores-Losano had been told earlier that day not to go into work at the ticket booth because of the wind. He did not have a car.

Family members called hospitals and posted desperate pleas with his photo on social media. A cousin drove around the island, stopping at shelters, hospitals and parking lots — repeating the drive each day.

Mr. Estores-Losano could not be found.

Two weeks passed until a DNA match confirmed what no one dared say out loud. The death certificate did not list a location, but the family heard unofficially that his remains had been found at home, located about a half-mile from the ocean.

His ashes would not be scattered, instead placed in a yellow ipu, a traditional Hawaiian instrument. It was the centerpiece of his funeral, a vibrant affair with hundreds of guests held at a mortuary in Kahului. There, a friend summed him up in the simplest of terms: “He always tried.”

Later, on a Sunday in October, a few family members found themselves at a row of white crosses perched on a hillside above Lahaina. They had come before to the unofficial memorial erected to honor each victim. This visit felt no different than the last. Grief had not softened.

Down a dirt walkway was a cross laden with leis and a photo of Mr. Estores-Losano. They swapped out the brittle bouquets and replaced them with roses — pink, his favorite color — and a garland of pikake.

Then they stood awhile in collective wonder about how such a life might have turned out with just a little more time for the rest of his story.

Alex Lemonides contributed reporting.

Back to top button