As Hawaiian Electric workers restored power Wednesday afternoon to the little neighborhood at the foot of Diamond Head, police removed barricades and residents returned to their homes, evacuated after violence and fire broke out three days before.
But not everyone could move back: Five homes had burned to the ground, and others sustained damage from heat and smoke.
The night my husband, Don Wallace, and I returned to our house on Hibiscus Drive, Venus hung big as a lantern above the sea in the moonless sky.
We walked down the dark, quiet block with yellow caution tape strung past heat-blasted hedges and a charred wasteland that stretched half the length of the block and descended makai towards Diamond Head Road.
At the top of her driveway, Hayley Cerit was leafing through a charred box of papers, her hands protected by gloves as thick as barbecue mitts. In the surrounding ash-and-rubble field, only a blackened shell of one room, with empty windows, remained of her house.
Hayley’s pretty, delicate features appeared pale and drawn beneath the dim street lights, but when she recognized us she braved a smile, making me think of all the sunny mornings she’d waved and cheered me on as I jogged past her house.
In the street light, she checked her watch.
“It’s late,” she said with surprise, “and I told (her brother’s family) we’d be back in an hour.”
As Hayley and her nephew, a muscular young man, picked up her things and drove off, I realized how strong she was, despite her thin, fragile-looking frame, and that this was the first time Hayley, not I, had ended one of our brief, spontaneous conversations over the past 10 years.
Ours had been a neighborhood where residents like Hayley and Ellen Farmer Freeman, whose house was also destroyed by Sunday’s fire, always took the time to smile and ask how you were and you knew they really cared.
And if like me you smiled, said, “Fine, you?” and rushed past without stopping, that was OK. On Hibiscus Drive, you were accepted for who you were.
It was almost a cliche of a wholesome suburb where neighbors chatted across fences and gathered on one another’s front porches and stoops.
Where if you dropped by to pay a kid for weeding the yard, his mom would insist you stay for dinner, and neighbors exchanged gifts of home-baked bread, cookies, lilikoi bars and pies.
I was born and grew up in the house where we live, and returned here with Don 11 years ago after raising our son in New York City.
From the outset, Ellen Freeman and her brother John Farmer, who had also grown up on the block, in their family home that burned, welcomed us back with warm memories of my mother’s piano playing, my siblings and small-kid times.
Hibiscus Drive is only two blocks from the ocean and the surf breaks known as Suis, Gravies, Rice Bowls and Tonggs, and I’d run into Ellen walking up Coconut Avenue in the morning sun with her longboard, looking like a teenager with her long, straight, ’60s hair, and see John in the evenings as we shortboarded at Suis until dark during summer swells.
It was a close-knit neighborhood filled with the sounds of children’s games and laughter, where families coned off the street so the kids could skateboard or learn to ride a bike, and our multigenerational block crowd often dominated Suis, fighting for and occasionally sharing waves.
Here, renters and homeowners, a developer, a retired professor and Matson captain, a TSA airport worker, a school gardening teacher and university oceanographer, a retired hedge funder, a nonprofit ocean conservancy director, a family lawyer, two impecunious journalists and many others formed friendships across age and socioeconomic lines.
At Halloween the block was extravagantly decorated, drawing trick-or-treaters from all over the island.
Every Christmas there was caroling by the flock of neighborhood children, led by a parent beating a drum.
The heart of the neighborhood was the row of four historic wooden cottages of similar, graceful design belonging to Hayley Cerit, Ellen and Russel Freeman, Pick and Catherine Bye and Lois Cain, all consumed by flames Sunday after Cain’s downstairs tenant, Jerry “Jarda” Hanel, allegedly killed her and two police officers before setting the fire.
Every Fourth of July, Hibiscus Drive families such as the Freemans, the Byes and their friends across the street, Debbie and Kimball Millikan and Jennifer and Eric Tema, organized a potluck barbecue in the park that was attended by residents of the whole neighborhood, including the “Gold Coast” blocks makai of Diamond Head Road.
At one of those picnics, 10 years ago, Don met Hanel: “He was affable, he was grilling and chatting and sharing his Polish bratwursts,” Don recalled.
Over the years that followed, Hanel’s mental condition declined and his behavior became hostile, leading four neighbors to file temporary restraining orders against him, and Cain’s recent attempts to evict him.
Three years ago, Don’s and my long-term tenant, Mark Iseman, a fine woodworker, luthier and fit surfer in his early 50s, told us the tall, imposing Hanel, in his late 60s, had threatened him with violence in our neighborhood beach park.
Yet the Freemans said that, the night before she was allegedly beaten to death by Hanel, the 77-year-old Cain told them she wasn’t afraid of her tenant, who had locked her out of her downstairs office, which she continued to access by climbing up and squeezing through a small window.
And now there’s a gaping hole where the heart of the block had been.
The first thing I noticed the night we returned was the residue of smoke filling our house and yard with the sharp, acrid smells of ashes and plastic chemicals.
It recalled the outbreak of sirens and plumes of smoke the morning of 9/11, when toxic fumes and the smell of death hung in the air of lower Manhattan, stretching as far north as Chelsea, where we lived.
While that fire and those ruins smoldered for months and the tragedy was on a vast, international scale, there as here the lethal violence had struck out of nowhere, it seemed, hitting us where we lived and had felt safe and connected.
That Sunday morning, a brisk tradewind, normally the friend of town surfers because it blows offshore, grooming the waves, became the enemy, blowing the fire from 3015 Hibiscus Drive onto the other homes that burned.
Forced to leave her house next door to Cerit’s and shelter with us, Bridget Holthus couldn’t see for hours whether her house, engulfed in the plume of smoke, had burned. She and her husband had just had it repainted.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Holthus said, staying calm. “Even if we lose the house, we’re still here, we’re alive and unharmed and hopefully everyone else is, too.”
While rumors were flying, we didn’t yet know that two police officers, Cain and Hanel were dead and that Cain’s upstairs tenant, Gisela Ricardi-King, had tried to rescue Cain and been brutally beaten by Hanel.
As the week stretched on, a resident announced on television and social media, in the dire tones of the bad-news Greek prophet Tiresias, “They’ve killed the neighborhood. It’s dead.”
She was dead wrong.
This is a block where neighbors risked their lives to come to each other’s help.
Gisela Ricardi-King rushed downstairs, neighbors said, to save her landlady and was stabbed by Hanel with a garden tool.
Ellen Freeman said she approached Hanel and he surrendered the gardening tool.
Seeing Ricardi-King had escaped Hanel’s clutches but was bleeding badly and unable to walk, Jennifer Tema, who was in her car with her two 7-year-old daughters, told the girls to go back in their house as she ran to assist Ricardi-King and, after shooting broke out, tied a tourniquet on her leg and carried her to an ambulance with a bystander’s aid.
Tema also begged Hanel to let Cain go.
All the while, she was desperately worried about her girls and a 7-year-old boy, whose father had taken him for shelter to the Tema home.
While Tema was restrained by police, who wouldn’t let her return home during the shootout, another neighbor, Stephany Sofos, who was sheltering next to an officer behind the Tema’s garden wall, texted Tema about the children, who kept leaving and reentering their home, inspired by a family fire drill the girls’ father had led the night before.
Tema said she was grateful that Sofos, while ducking bullets, played liaison, urging the children to stay inside and assuring her they were safe; but afterward, Tema worried about post-traumatic stress because the children, she feared, “saw the whole thing” from the Temas’ upstairs balcony.
All this past week, residents and friends, including two families who were evicted from their rented homes and had to move out just before the holidays, were meeting, texting, providing support, attending memorials for the slain police officers and setting up GoFundMe pages for those who lost their homes and belongings.
And searching for one another’s lost cats.
The neighborhood is more alive than ever.