(LAHAINA, Hawaii) — The family of a kind-hearted Maui resident known as “Uncle Joe” believes the 67-year-old died trying to help his elderly neighbors, as the flames from Hawaii’s deadliest wildfire engulfed historic Lahaina.
Missing since Aug. 8, Joe Schilling was last seen at his residence in the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior housing site in downtown Lahaina.
Piecing together his final communications that day with accounts from friends who interacted with him, his family believes that while Schilling had ample time to escape his residence, he chose to stay at his apartment complex to help his neighbors who were otherwise unable to escape the fire.
“We are trapped, can’t see a thing, plus when u try to breath it burns ur lungs,” Schilling sent to a friend at 3:51 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (HST) on Tuesday while he sheltered with five of his elderly neighbors, according to the text messages reviewed by ABC News.
A longtime resident of Maui, Schilling is being remembered by his loved ones as an endlessly generous man whose instinct to help others was exemplified in his final moments.
“What Joe did allowed these people not to die alone … that’s the great gesture he did that he sacrificed himself for,” his brother, Dan Schilling, told ABC News.
Since Tuesday, neither Joe Schilling nor Alfie Rawlings, another missing resident from the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior housing site, have been heard from. Their families tell ABC News they believe their loved ones passed away during the fire and are working to submit DNA samples to confirm that conclusion.
Officials in Maui have only been able to positively identify a few victims, and only two victims’ identities have not been publicly released. The severe damage to human remains from the extreme heat has made identification challenging, officials said, and a majority of Lahaina has not been searched with cadaver dogs.
In a statement released yesterday, the management of Hale Mahaolu said the apartment complex was destroyed in the fire and acknowledged “reports of the death of one tenant.”
“We also remain deeply concerned for our tenants who have not yet been located,” the statement read, not specifying the number of missing residents.
The Schilling family said they have been in touch with Red Cross officials to communicate Schilling’s last known location and to communicate the concern about other missing persons from the same site.
Far from unique, their effort to piece together the final moments of Joe Schilling’s life mirrors the shared efforts taking place across Lahaina to trace the steps of missing loved ones. Its conclusion, however tragic, shows how a community can find meaning amid immense tragedy.
“If he saw someone in need, I know he would have gone out of the way,” said Akiba Bluh, 22, who Schilling helped raise like an adopted nephew. “So the fact that he did that brings me solace and peace, knowing that he showed his true genuine character.”
Joe Schilling landed on the island of Maui roughly 25 years ago and quickly adopted the moniker “Uncle Joe.”
“We were not the only people that knew him as Uncle Joe. His nametag at work was ‘Uncle Joe’ because he was just that guy that was there for everybody,” his close friend Corie Bluh, Akiba’s mother, explained to ABC News.
Schilling took a particularly pronounced uncle role in Bluh’s family after meeting Corie Bluh’s late husband at work. When Bluh’s husband, who suffered from bouts of mental illness according to Corie Bluh, took to the sidelines of parenting, Schilling stepped in to mentor and raise Bluh’s five children.
“How can I describe it – just love that’s unconditional,” Akiba Bluh said about his relationship with Schilling.
For Dan Schilling, who grew up with Joe as an “inclusive” and “protective” older brother by seven years, Joe’s pronounced role with the Bluhs and the larger community in Maui came as no surprise.
“His life, I would describe it with two words: It was selfless and without convention,” Dan Schilling explained.
“6 of us in one unit”
Joe Schilling seemed prepared to ride out the ongoing power outages and impacts from the firestorm, according to his loved ones.
He had stocked up on provisions, according to Dan Schilling, and spent the morning driving to scope out the fire in nearby areas, which he communicated to Corie Bluh.
“He didn’t seem too worried. He knew that there was a fire in the area, but it obviously had not gotten to his area yet,” his brother Bill Schilling described.
At the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior house site, residents seemed relatively unconcerned as the smoke began to reach the units, according to Tina Bass, who lived next door to Schilling.
“I’m like, ‘Hurry, we have to go now,’” Bass recounted of an interaction with another neighbor. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, Tina, it’s OK. No alarm in my house. I hear nothing. It’s OK.’”
However, Schilling heeded Bass’ warning about the fire, and they both began preparing to evacuate around 3 p.m. on Tuesday. In an interview with ABC News, Bass specifically recalled locking her door at the same time as Schilling.
“He has his backpack in his arm … and he says to me, ‘Tina, I’m right behind you,’” Bass said.
Passing other units on their way to the parking lot, Bass said she realized that some of the residents had not yet prepared to evacuate, partially due to the lack of warnings and mobility issues.
“He only got about using an electric wheelchair, so that’s how I know he definitely would have been at home,” Shirley McPherson said about her 84-year-old father Alfie Rawlings, who lived in the same apartment complex as Schilling and Bass.
Losing track of Schilling in the rush to her car, Bass said she got to her vehicle to evacuate by 3:10 p.m. and assumed Schilling was successful in escaping the fire. He had told her his plan was to evacuate to the home of the Bluh family.
“Even if he got stuck in traffic … he would have made it to the Bluhs by then,” Bass said.
However, text messages between Schilling and friend Corie Bluh confirm he ended up staying at the apartment complex, where multiple older residents were unable to evacuate.
“Multiple houses on fire right across from me can’t leave can’t see,” Schilling said in a 3:41 p.m. text.
“Breathing through wet towels,” he texted at 3:52 p.m.
“6 of us in one unit,” Schilling sent at 3:54 p.m.
Reports about the timeline of the wildfire suggest the flames began to impact the area nearby Hale Mahaolu Eono by 4 p.m. By Tuesday night, the flames were traveling as fast as a mile a minute, according to Governor Josh Green.
McPherson said that she originally learned about the search to find Schilling on social media in the aftermath of the fire, finding some hope that her father and Joe were together during the chaos.
“I’m hopeful that he did, but I think my dad would have been very stubborn,” she said. “And he would have been like, ‘No, get other people out first, don’t worry about me, I have had my life.’”
How or why Schilling and five residents may have ended up in the same single-resident unit remains unclear. However, friends and family independently have expressed the same theory about Joe’s instinct in the crisis.
“What’s very clear is he put everybody in one spot because nobody else was capable of even doing that,” Dan Schilling said.
“Not one doubt in my mind that he went in to help because he would never walk by anybody in distress,” Corie Bluh said.
“If it weren’t people, it would be dogs,” his sister, Penny Schilling, said about her brother’s instinct to help, adding that the chain of events “makes perfect sense.”
“There isn’t anybody in the family, or who knew Joe, that would be surprised that he would put himself at risk to help somebody else,” Bill Schilling said.
In some of the last messages to Bluh, Joe sent two photos of a nearby home on fire at roughly 3:57 p.m.
Breathing through wet towels and watching as the flames take over nearby houses, Schilling’s last sent text message from 4:06 p.m. warned, “Cars parked on the road now exploding.”
People at their best
Certainty is a rare commodity on the island of Maui following last week’s fire.
Each family described trying to contact authorities about their loved ones but have not learned any concrete information from officials.
Rather, they slowly began to piece together information from social media, community members, and other loved ones – a collective effort to not only locate relatives, but also find closure after the tragedy. Piecing together the stories of the loved ones from the ash and rubble left behind, they said they found hope in seeing the best of humanity amid the worst of circumstances.
“There are probably dozens, if not 100 stories just like this. …This was people at their best trying to do things, and Joe’s just one example,” Joe Schilling said.
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