WAILUKU, Hawaii – Authorities in Hawaii have adjusted the number of deaths from the deadly Maui wildfire down to at least 97 people.
Officials previously said they believed at least 115 people had died in the fire, but further testing showed they had multiple DNA samples from some of the victims. The number of those who are missing also fell from 41 to 31, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.
John Byrd, laboratory director with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said during a news conference Friday afternoon that the current number of dead should be considered a minimum, because it’s possible that toll could rise.
Determining the death toll from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina has been especially complicated because of the damage caused by the fire and the chaos as people tried to escape, officials said. In some cases, animal remains were inadvertently collected along with human remains.
So far, 74 of the deceased have been positively identified, Pelletier said.
The Lahaina fire is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. Caught in a hellscape, some residents died in their cars, while others jumped into the ocean or tried to run for safety. The blaze reduced much of the historic town to ash.
“When the fire broke out, people ran together, they huddled together,” said Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, Maui County physician’s coroner. “They’re holding each other in those moments. Some of them were even holding pets.” Because of this, some remains arrived commingled.
Byrd said the initial death tally was too high for several reasons, adding that the lower tally now was the “normal and natural” progression of the long-term forensics investigation.
“We look at body bags that come in and we do an initial inventory and we assess how many people are represented there," he said. “When you do the first tally of all those that have come in, the number tends to be too high because as you begin to do more analysis and examination you realize that actually you’ve got two bags that were the same person or you have two bags that were the same two people but you didn’t realize that.”
“The numbers start a little too high on the morgue side and eventually settles until at some point it’s going to be a final accurate number. I would say we’re not quite there yet,” Byrd said.
Only people who have had a missing person report filed for them with the Maui Police Department are on the verified missing list, Pelletier said. If a missing person report hasn’t been filed for someone more than five weeks after the fire, then that person probably isn’t actually missing, the chief said.
Stuelpnagel wasn’t supposed to start in his new role until October. But he sped up his start date and arrived on Maui from New York City soon after the fire. Until he arrived, Maui’s medical examiner duties were shared with other counties.
“When this happened it was time to drop everything and come here,” he said.
Stuelpnagel said people working on the identification process are trying to “reunify people to have them as whole as they’re able to be,” before the remains are returned to their loved ones.
The work to reunite fire victims with families involves more than just DNA tests, officials said. Anthropologists are assisting, and officials are gathering clues from dental work and medical devices like pacemakers when possible.
Authorities expressed relief at having a better grasp on the number of dead and those still unaccounted for in the wildfire.
“For the very first time … we legitimately have a chance to identify every single person we lost and to reunite them with their family,” Pelletier said. “And so in the midst of all this tragedy, there’s a little ray of hope right there and so that really is incredible.”
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.