(MAUI) — For nearly two agonizing weeks, Dana Condrey said she and her parents lived in horror as they watched the death toll climb from the wildfire that devastated the Hawaiian Island of Maui and not knowing if her big brother perished or survived.
Her brother, 56-year-old Phillip Hudelson, who lived and worked in hard-hit Lahaina, vanished when the deadliest U.S. blaze in more than 100 years destroyed his residence and the restaurant where he worked as a bartender.
Instead of sitting by the phone waiting for news of her brother’s fate, Condrey, a married mother of two, booked a flight to Hawaii from her home in California and set out on a long-shot mission to find her only sibling, telling ABC News, “I told my mother I’d find him.”
Thanks to the information, including a DNA sample, she gave the Red Cross soon after arriving on Sunday in Maui, Condrey was reunited with her brother, finding him at a hotel resort where emergency workers had sheltered him, she said.
“I didn’t know I had so much love out there. I really didn’t,” Hudelson told ABC News on Monday, just three hours after being reunited with Condrey and wearing the same clothes he said he had on when he escaped the flames that leveled his neighborhood.
As search-and-rescue officials said there are still hundreds of people unaccounted for, Hudelson’s story of survival is providing a glimmer of hope for the families still looking for their loved ones.
“Don’t give up. Have faith,” Hudelson said in his message to those searching for relatives and friends.
On Tuesday, his mother, Laura Hudelson of Arizona, told ABC News, “My prayers were answered.”
“It just lifted a thousand pounds off my head,” she said of finally speaking to her son by phone on Monday. “I know what every mother, father, sibling of someone who hasn’t been found, is going through.”
Phillip Hudelson said his terrifying experience began Aug. 8 when he fled the fire that consumed his neighborhood in the hills above Lahaina, leveling his home and those of his neighbors.
“The fire happened so fast. We had to get off the mountain where I was living and it followed me,” he said of the fire.
Hudelson said he initially evacuated to the beach in Lahaina, but soon found himself on the move again when the intense flames and smoke caught up to him. He said he left his home on a scooter with just the clothes on his back and his cellphone, but no charger.
Forced to keep moving away from the fire, he said he found a safe haven on a beach in the neighboring town of Kaanapali, where he bedded down in a lounge chair he found at one of the hotels. By then, his cellphone battery was dead because power was out in the area, and he had no way of recharging his device, which contained the unmemorized phone numbers of his family members.
He said the next day when the fire died down, he drove his scooter back to Lahaina, but the town was barely recognizable with nearly every structure, including the restaurant where he worked, Cheeseburger in Paradise, burned to the ground. He said he saw a body on the ground.
“I knew my mother was dying to hear from me and I really wanted to get access to a phone, but there was no way to do it,” said Hudelson, adding that the remaining businesses still standing were all closed and everyone he encountered was in a similar situation — cut off from any kind of electronic communication.
Hudelson said he stayed at the beach in Kaanapali for 10 days, living off cans of soup he was able to purchase at the only grocery store in the area still open.
“They were ringing stuff up on a calculator because they had no power,” he said of the grocery store workers.
He said eventually two men camping out on the beach near him, informed him that the Red Cross was giving out hotel rooms to evacuees at a hotel close by.
“I jumped right up and went over there and by the grace of God, they gave me a room,” Hudelson said.
He said the hotel also directed him to Red Cross workers, who took his personal information. He said he had no idea his family had put him on a missing persons list.
Condrey said she and her family worked the phones calling authorities and acquaintances in Maui, trying desperately to locate Hudelson and chasing down every tip from afar to no avail.
“There was a social media post from Cheeseburger in Paradise for him to pick up his paycheck and then when I found out he didn’t pick that up that day, that night I booked a flight here,” Condrey told ABC News.
She said a high school girlfriend’s brother’s wife who lives in Maui heard of her plight and reached out, inviting her to stay with her as she searched for her brother.
Condrey said she hit the ground running once she reached Maui, passing out flyers and putting up posters of her missing brother.
She said that when she contacted the Red Cross, they asked for a DNA sample.
“I gave my DNA, which I didn’t want to do because it made me feel like he’s dead,” Condrey said.
She said that after the first day of searching for her brother, she said she felt “defeated.”
Then a Red Cross worker called her out of the blue that same night and informed her, “‘We found your brother.'”
Condrey said she called her parents right away, but her father told her he couldn’t believe the promising news until she actually saw him in person.
She said the next morning, she went to the hotel where she was informed her brother was staying, but the staff stopped her from going directly to his room, citing the hotel’s rules.
“We had to wait an hour for security to come and bang on his door,” Condrey said.
Hudelson said when he heard the knock at his door, he looked through the peephole and heard a security guard saying, “‘Your sister is downstairs.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘My sister is downstairs? I felt overwhelmed,” Hudelson said. “I walked through the lobby and she was out on a lounge chair, and I looked at her and said, ‘Oh my gosh.'”
Condrey said she started to cry and called their mother, putting her brother on the phone.
“He said to me, ‘Now mom, you didn’t think a little fire is going to hurt me,'” Laura Hudelson told ABC News.
She added, “My son’s a survivor and I knew that about him. He’s been through a lot. He went to Hawaii to get his life back.”
Phillip Hudelson said he’s lived in Maui for four years and plans to stay.
“I love this place,” he said.
ABC News’ Ashley Riegle and Maria Villalobos contributed to this report.
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