Sen. Imee Marcos Makes Special Visit With Lahaina Fire Survivors
Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant Editor
“I commiserate with you and we feel your pain even as we are unable to fully comprehend the tragedy that you feel,” said Philippine Senator Imee Marcos to a standing room only audience at Tante’s Island Cuisine that included thirty Lahaina fire survivors. “We know that these family members that you have lost will never come again and as a result it is a pain that cannot be assuaged by mere words or even help.”
Marcos would specifically address several of the Lahaina fire survivors who were invited: “Kevin Baclig–the sole survivor of a household of ten; Anna Cabanilla and the Cabanilla family who have lost both members of their family as well as their home; Alvin Constantino whose mother and brother disappeared in this dreadful fire; to the many business owners whose businesses were completely destroyed like the Cabanillas; we commiserate with you and we hope that we will in some way be able to help you.”
Baclig suffered one of the most tragic and poignant events. Thirty-year old Baclig arrived on Maui in 2020 during the pandemic to be with his thirty-one-year-old wife Angelica, who worked two jobs (Foodland and Panda). Baclig lived with Angelica and her parents Joel and Adela Villegas and his brother-in-law Junmark Quijano in one house. In the other house lived Felimon Quijano (Angelica’s uncle), Luz Bernabe (Felimon’s sister), Lydia Coloma (Bernabe’s sister), Salvador Quijano (Coloma’s husband) and Glenda Yabes (Bernabe’s niece). Everyone except Baclig perished in the fire; Baclig was working at Hale Makua at the time. Baclig plans to bring the remains of his wife (who he was married to for six years) as well as the other family members to Sinait in the Philippines. Bernabe will be buried on Maui with her husband.
Marcos devoted time speaking with all the survivors in attendance. When she entered Tante’s Island Cuisine, she stopped to meet with each gathering of survivors, many of whom had tears in their eyes. “I met with survivors and heard their emotional and mental struggles trying to cope with their loss of loved ones, homes and friends,” Marcos told Emme Tomimbang-Burns in a subsequent exclusive interview. “At first, they couldn’t believe it was me–we cried, hugged and they shared their immeasurable grief. I had no idea so many of them were Filipinos from our part of the country.”
“She asked me about my family,” says Baclig. “She also asked me how I am. I was very thankful to her for giving her time to us for the Lahaina victims even though she was not scheduled to come here to Maui. I heard she was supposed to be in Honolulu only and she wants to come to Maui for a short time.” Other Lahaina fire survivors agreed with Baclig. “It was very important Senator Imee came to Maui to share her love and sympathy to the Filipinos and Lahaina fire victims,” says Evelyn Cabanilla, owner of Ilocandia Filipino Store which burned in the fire.
Ana Cabanilla, who lost her fifty-year-old brother Eugene Recolizado, her fifty-one-year-old sister-in-law Maria Victoria Recolizado and their eleven-year-old son Justin Recolizado, was grateful for the Senator’s visit. “I was really touched she took the time to come and speak with people and hear their stories.” Cabanilla and her husband Jordan also lost their home. Her in-laws, Jose and Milagrita Cabanilla, and her cousins Jayson Cabanilla and Jordan Cabanilla also lost their homes.
In the exclusive interview with Tomimbang-Burns, Marcos also mentioned the Pagdilao family who a few days before her visit held services for Pablo “Siding” Pagdilao. “I specifically remember Mrs. Pagdilao who was trying to get her [disabled] husband [over the seawall] to the water–but couldn’t. And he instructed her to go on ahead. He died.” Mrs. Pagdilao’s children hope to fulfill their parents’ plans to mark what would have been their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the Philippines next March.
Marcos, the eldest sibling of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., broke away from a packed calendar on Oahu to breakfast with the survivors on Maui. She arrived in Hawaii earlier in the week on an unofficial visit filled with back-to-back events on Oahu, planned months in advance by various Oahu Filipino organizations. “We felt it was very important to be with you today,” she told the Lahaina fire survivors. “We managed to come over despite the rather tight schedule in Honolulu. Just as the Consul said, we are here very briefly but I am here to just hear your stories and share the tragedy and the loss of Lahaina and many of the businesses here in Maui.”
“Maui is so beautiful,” Marcos said to Tomimbang-Burns. “I was very sorry I couldn’t go to Ground Zero of Lahaina. It was forty minutes away and I had only an hour or so on the ground. But our reception at Tante’s in Kahului gave me a close up look at the families affected by the wildfires.”
After her speech, Marcos took photos with each survivor and often brought them to meet Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, Jr. who was standing on the side while photos were taken. “We weren’t prepared to bring relief to the survivors but I will speak to our Mayors when we return and see what we can offer,” she said to Tomimbang-Burns.
Marcos spoke to the largely Ilocano audience. “A great number of you are of course Ilocanos from Ilocos Norte so I feel very much at home and they greeted me very profusely and generously at the airport. I could barely surface above all the lei and goodwill.”
Sixteen Mayors/Vice Mayors from the various towns in the Philippines accompanied Marcos on her Hawaii trip and many of them traveled with her to Maui. At the brief reception on Maui, Marcos introduced the Mayors or Vice Mayors from Bacarra, Badoc, Bangui, Banna, Batac, Currimao, Dingras, Nueva Era, Paoay, Pasuquin, Piddig, Pinili, San Nicolas and Solsona. “With us today there are many of our Mayors from Ilocos Norte. I believe this is the biggest delegation of Mayors from the province of Ilocos Norte [ever].”
Lahaina fire survivor Chamille Misay-Serrano who attended the event with her nephew Mel Misay was thankful Marcos came and brought the Mayors with her. “Seeing Senator Imee Marcos here in Maui made me so proud to be a Filipino. That only shows they do care about us Filipinos, no matter where we are, in any part of the world. Knowing they are so many miles away, they made the time to come visit and see how we, the Lahaina Wildfires Survivors, are doing, made us feel so loved and special! Mahalo, Thank you and Salamat Po, Madam Senator Imee and to all the Mayors who made a special trip to Maui,” Misay-Serrano said. “A special shout out to our Banna Mayor Chrislyn Abadilla and Vice Mayor Carly Abadilla for visiting my family and for the unending love and support since day one.”
Marcos noted how Ilocanos–no matter the political winds or the change in administration remained steadfastly supportive of her family. As with her appearances on Oahu, Marcos made sure to “give thanks to all of you for the overwhelming support you have given my family over the years. I can do no less for your family.”
“Despite the tragedy that has befallen on so many of our families, you remain here resilient and upstanding, helping each other and still determined to remain hopeful in the face of a [grievious] loss.”
As Marcos explained, “Ilocanos are a tough breed. We come from a difficult country” and noted how the Philippines annually experiences many natural disasters. “We are used to typhoons. We are used to even huge floods and earthquakes have become commonplace and yet a fire of this magnitude–a fire that is so overwhelming and complete such as Lahaina where forty percent were actually Filipino is a tragedy we cannot imagine.”
Kaye Lagpacan, a Lahaina fire survivor from San Nicolas, said “I am grateful that Senator Imee came to visit us, especially the Ilocanos.” Lagpacan, who was renting in Lahaina, lost all her belongings and is now housed at her kailian’s home in Kahului. Leticia Domingo, another Lahaina fire survivor from San Nicolas concurred: “I was grateful that even if we are in another country, she comes and visits us and shows her concern to us, the survivors of the Lahaina wildfires.”
As Marcos would further explain to Tomimbang-Burns, “As you know, we have weather calamities all the time in our country. So it’s not new to us. But these wildfires were so devastating. I could not imagine the threat and the panic of people running from it. We haven’t had any fire emergencies so that was a new catastrophic tragedy to respond to.”
Marcos urged the survivors, “We must remain resilient and hopeful in the face of all of this. There is a reason you survived and perhaps it is our faith that will tell us what to do next. And how to remain whole and united in the face of this tragedy. I think that the sharing of this, mourning together and praying is the only way to survive.”
Tante Urban, owner of Tante’s Island Cuisine, who co-hosted the event with Consul General Emil T. Fernandez recognized the importance of the visit: “It was wonderful of Senator Imee Marcos to come to Maui to meet with the grieving Pinoys who were affected by the Lahaina wildfires. Her presence and support uplifted our kababayans specially those who lost a lot in the Lahaina disaster. Thanks to ConGen Fernandez for leading the way for Senator Imee to come to Maui even for just a few hours.”
Marcos promised Tomimbang-Burns “I will keep in touch with this community and see how they progress.”
Alfredo G. Evangelista’s roots are from Paoay, Ilocos Norte. At the event, Evangelista shared a story from his ninety-nine-year-old Mom Catalina Gonzales Evangelista who recalled cooking pinakbet and adobo gurong ti baboy for future Ilocos Norte Governor Jose Evangelista and future Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
Multi-award winning and Filipino pioneer television reporter, anchor and producer Emme Tomimbang-Burns contributed to this story. Tomimbang-Burns had an exclusive interview with Marcos on the same day Marcos traveled to Maui. The interview covering several topics including President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr.’s first years in office, will be broadcast later.