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College of Pharmacy

From paradise to catastrophe — Student pharmacists escape Lahaina fire

Students on a boat on the ocean
Natalie Moning and Kristina Benbow, '24

It was the morning of August 8 in the beautiful seaside town of Lahaina, Maui. The winds whipped angrily from Hurricane Dora, and the sky continued to grow eerily dark from the thick smoke amid the orange glow of the coming blaze. USC fourth-year student pharmacists Natalie Moning and Kristina Benbow had arrived on the island just a week earlier. Little did they know they would soon be fleeing to escape the horror that was to come.

The devastating images of the historical town of Lahaina on the island of Maui have left an indelible mark – where Hawaiian royals once lived now lay the ruins of businesses and homes alike. Nothing was spared. There are 115 confirmed deaths with hundreds still reported missing. 

Benbow and Moning arrived in Lahaina for their scheduled community pharmacy rotation at the local Walgreens. As many USC student pharmacists had done in years past, they were staying in Bill and Lorri Robusto’s guest house. Robusto, who served as a preceptor for many USC pharmacy students, retired in 2022 as the Walgreens pharmacy manager. He and his wife Lorri still provided lodging for students as they had done for many years.

The morning of the fire, Bill’s wife offered Benbow and Moning their truck to drive to work because of the heavy winds. Power was already out in the area, and the students had to dodge downed limbs and power lines.

“Once we got to work, the power was out in the store as well, so the staff sent us home,” Benbow recalls.

“Trees were going down, the wind was scary,” Moning says. “Then we saw smoke from the house behind us.” 

Initially, they thought the smoke was from a brush fire.

“It got darker, then it started to glow orange, almost black smoke right over the fence from us,” she says. 

Trees were going down, the wind was scary. Then we saw smoke from the house behind us. It got darker, then it started to glow orange ...

The Robustos told the girls to pack a bag, and together they left to find safer ground on the opposite side of the island. It took some time to make their way out as there was only one exit out of the neighborhood, and they could see the fire approaching on the left.

“We were so worried, and Lorri was trying to distract us to keep us looking away from the fire toward the ocean,” says Benbow. “They just kept reassuring us that everything would be OK.”

While they did escape the fire and the students returned safely to the U.S. mainland the next day, the Robustos, as did so many who lived in Lahaina, lost their home and all they owned. After processing what had happened, Benbow and Moning wanted to find a way to repay the Robustos for their kindness.

They quite literally saved our lives. We had no car; we didn’t know how to get out and had no way to communicate, but they made sure we were safe. I knew there had to be something we could do to help them ...

Benbow with backpack

“They quite literally saved our lives,” Benbow says. “We had no car; we didn’t know how to get out and had no way to communicate, but they made sure we were safe. I knew there had to be something we could do to help them.”

Moning and Benbow decided to set up a GoFundMe page to assist the Robustos. With a goal of $50,000, the fund already has donations of more than $32,000. Donations have come from friends, family, and strangers alike, and from several USC COP alumni who stayed with the Robustos during their rotations.

Moning says that after all the devastation that resulted from the fire, she hopes the Robustos and all the victims can find peace.

“The pharmacy community is such a caring profession,” she says. “It felt like a tiny little thing that we could do, to demonstrate the spirit of ‘aloha.’ We can’t do enough to thank them.”

Topics: Pharm.D. Program, Experiential Education

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