As search and rescue teams continue to painstakingly comb through rubble and ashes from the Lahaina fire for human remains, DNA specialists work to identify the dead and the FBI in Honolulu is tracking down the “unaccounted for.”
All three efforts — to bring good news or closure about people’s loved ones — has been daunting.
As of Tuesday, two weeks after the fast moving fire burned down much of Lahaina, the death toll is at 115. The remains that have been identified is at 43. And the number of “unaccounted for” is between 1,000 and 1,100, according to officials.
During a press conference Tuesday, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier was blunt: “Please understand this. Once the search is done, I can’t guarantee nor can anyone say we got everybody. We are going to do our darndest and make every effort to do that.”
He noted that on 9/11 many people were not recovered. More than 20 years later, that number stands at 1,106.
“We don’t have that type of devastation with the towers like you saw there. We have an entire town that’s destroyed,” Pelletier said.
The search efforts have now moved into the more difficult phase of multi-family, multi-floor buildings in which structures are not sound, with some floors pancaked on top of each other.
Pelletier brought a map to the press conference with black dots showing the areas that have been searched. He said it will not end until every area damaged by the fire has been searched.
“We are going to do it right. We are not going to do it fast. We are not going to be in a rush,” the chief said. “We got one chance. And when this is all said and done, realistically, let’s be honest here, we’re going to have a number of confirmed [dead] and we’re going to have a number of presumed [dead].”
To try to get to the most accurate final number of people who lost their lives to this tragedy — already the deadliest fire in the United States in more than a century — and to identify all remains, officials pleaded for help from relatives and friends of people believed to be deceased or unaccounted for.
DNA samples are needed to identify the dead. Accurate, detailed information is needed to track down the missing.
The remains that are being found are primarily being identified using rapid DNA that is being conducted on Maui.
Julie French, senior vice president of ANDE Rapid DNA, said 104 families have provided DNA. Itʻs a low amount compared to other disasters, she said.
Maui Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Martin, coordinator of the Family Assistance Center for the fire response, urged relatives of people who are unaccounted for to come to the center located at the Hyatt Regency in Lahaina to provide a DNA sample.
He said people should not be afraid to give a DNA sample because it would only be used for identification purposes and would not be given to law enforcement or immigration agencies.
The Maui Police Department asked the FBI for it’s help in tracking down the “unaccounted for,” which at one time was at 2,500 names — compiled from several lists kept by a variety of agencies and organizations, including the Maui police, the American Red Cross, emergency shelters and crowd-sourced Maui Fires People Locator.
While they have located 1,400 people on the list, Steven Merrill, FBI Special Agent in Charge, there are still more than 1,000 people not found.
The figure is up from the 850 recently reported by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. Merrill said the number will continue to fluctuate for the foreseeable future.
So why is the FBI, considered one of the best agencies in the world in finding people, running into problems narrowing the list further?
Merrill said it is lack of information to work with.
“These lists come from a variety of sources, and some of the information is highly ambiguous,” he said.
For instance, some people only supplied a first or last name, but not both.
This is why the FBI is requesting that anyone who submitted a missing person report following the fire should make sure they provided the most up-to-date and accurate information, including date of birth, of the missing person. If that person has been found, it would be important to let the FBI know.
The other frustration, Merrill said, is many people who initially made the reports of unaccounted for people are not calling back FBI agents who are reaching out for more information.
Pelletier said only 85 people have officially filed a missing person report with the police in regards to the fire.
And Merrill said there are no known children on the 1,000-plus unaccounted list. He said that is according to date of births provided.
But this does not mean there are no children, Pelletier said, adding he expects there will be children among the deceased.
Part of the problem now stems from the confusion in the days after the fire, with inoperable cell service and Internet making it impossible for some people to let family and friends no they were safe — and for friends and family to contact people they were concerned about.
People were taking to social media, frustrated with officials providing no immediate central place for people to learn if their friends and family were okay, or to report a person missing.
Thatʻs why Kīhei resident Ellie Erickson on the morning after the fire took the matters into her own hands and created Maui Fires People Locator. Erickson said her list is maintained by about 20 volunteers who all have a “vested interest in supporting the community.”
It has 6,121 names on it, most added during the early chaotic days, but now the “not located” number is at 692.
Pelletier said at this point, the FBI’s official list of the “unaccounted for” is not being made public for privacy reasons. But if more help is needed to track down people, it could be made public in the future.
Erickson said she was contacted by the FBI, Maui County officials and the American Red Cross about her list.
In an email Tuesday, she said: “We are collaborating with any necessary agencies and organizations, thoughtfully and carefully, as we all share the overarching goal to connect as many missing individuals as possible with their loved ones.”
Anyone who is interested in submitting an official report on someone who is still unaccounted for following the wildfire disaster is asked to contact the Maui Police Department at email@example.com.
If you reported an individual as unaccounted for and have since made contact with that person(s), you are urged to contact the FBI at 808-566-4300 or firstname.lastname@example.org, so that they can be removed from the list of people who are still unaccounted for.
The county’s Family Assistance Center is working with families and individuals to gather DNA samples to assist with the identification process. If you are the immediate family member of someone who has been reported unaccounted for, please go to the Family Assistance Center (Hyatt Regency’s Monarchy Ballroom, 200 Nohea Kai Dr. in Ka’anapali) between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily to submit a DNA sample.
If you live outside of Maui, including on one of the neighbor islands or on the continental United States, please contact the FBI at 808-566-4300 or email@example.com to coordinate the submission of a DNA sample.
Maui Now freelance reporter Abby Owens contributed to this report.