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Maui confronts challenge of finding over 800 missing people after fire

Fire experts say it's possible some bodies were cremated in the wildfire, meaning there may be no bones left to identify through DNA tests.
Maui confronts challenge of finding over 800 missing people after fire
Posted at 6:02 AM, Aug 22, 2023

Two weeks after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century swept through the Maui community of Lahaina, authorities say more than 800 people remain unaccounted for — a staggering number that presents huge challenges for officials who are trying to determine how many of those perished and how many may have made it to safety but haven't checked in.

Something similar happened after a wildfire in 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Authorities in Butte County, home to Paradise, ultimately published a list of the missing in the local newspaper, a decision that helped identify scores of people who had made it out alive but were listed as missing. Within a month, the list dropped from 1,300 names to only a dozen.

"I probably had, at any given time, 10 to 15 detectives who were assigned to nothing but trying to account for people who were unaccounted for," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a phone interview. "At one point the local editor of our newspaper … said, 'Hey, if you give me the names, I will print them.' And at that point it was like, 'Absolutely. Anything that we can do to help out.'"

But Maui authorities have opted not to publicize their list because it's unclear whether privacy rules would prevent them from doing so, said Adam Weintraub, spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. There are also concerns about further traumatizing families of those who are now listed as missing but may turn out to be dead, he added.

As of Monday, there were 115 people confirmed dead, according to Maui police.

"The names of, and any information related to the missing individuals, will not be published or be made publicly available at this time," a Maui County spokesperson said via text message.

SEE MORE: Maui fire aftermath: Water and ash come with health concerns

There are also widely varying accounts of the tally of the missing. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Sunday on the CBS News show "Face the Nation" that more than 1,000 remained unaccounted for. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a pre-recorded video on Instagram that the number was 850. And during President Joe Biden's tour of the devastation on Monday, White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall put it between 500 and 800.

The American Red Cross said it generates its own list — separate from law enforcement — of people who are unaccounted for through requests made to its call center and information gathered by its field teams, spokesperson Daniel Parra said. The organization has also entered into a data-sharing agreement with federal, state and local government agencies to help with reunifications.

So far the American Red Cross has successfully completed roughly 2,400 requests seeking reunification or welfare updates, out of the more than 3,000 it has received, Parra said. A completed request means the organization was able to locate a missing person or verify someone's status in a medical facility, for example, among other things.

To find people, the organization cross-checks names with emergency shelter registration lists, calls hospitals to see if the person was admitted as a patient and combs through social media, among other steps, Parra said. When an individual is located, the organization provides their status to the person seeking information about them — with the individual's consent — and closes the case in its system.

Social outreach like this will be crucial as identifying human remains after wildfires — and confirming whether those who are unaccounted for are deceased — can be an arduous, lengthy process. Fire experts say it's possible some bodies were cremated in the Lahaina fire, meaning there may be no bones left to identify through DNA tests.

"Those are easy when destruction is modest," said Vyto Babrauskas, president of fire safety research consulting firm Fire Science and Technology Inc. "If you go to the extreme of things — if turned to ash — you're not going to be able to identify anything."

Babrauskas added that damage from debris removal and excavation can also make recovery efforts difficult.

"This is such an extreme disaster," he said. "It is so rare to need this kind of tallying and identification."

Honea, the Butte County sheriff, said it took weeks to complete the search for remains in Paradise and his detectives worked 16-hour days to narrow the list of the missing. Today there is only one person who still remains unaccounted for, and Honea said he has reason to believe that person was not in town the day of the fire.

"We had this Excel spreadsheet with the people's names and any of the different information we had," he said. "We'd then start working the cases similar to the way you work any other case to try to locate somebody."

That included visiting people's last known residences, contacting telecommunications companies to see whether they had used their cell phones, and reaching out by email and social media.

"We were able to identify them through basically good old fashioned detective work," Honea said.

Scuba instructor Tim Ferguson, whose home north of Lahaina was spared, was elated to hear about a friend who managed to flee the flames with their family, including a 2-week-old baby, a 3-year-old toddler and their two dogs. They lost their home but are safe.

He thought it would be good if authorities published a list of the missing the way Paradise did but said that might be of limited use now because cell service is still spotty in Lahaina. Everyone uses their cellphone to communicate, he said.

"There are so many of those who won't have that ending. I don't know how we come back from that," Ferguson said.

SEE MORE: President Biden tours damage in Maui, promises support for rebuilding

The situation on Maui is still evolving rapidly, but those who have lived through similar tragedies and never learned of their loved ones' fate are also following the news and hurting for the victims and their families.

Nearly 22 years later, almost 1,100 victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, which killed nearly 3,000, have no identified remains.

Joseph Giaccone's family initially was desperate for any physical trace of the 43-year-old finance executive, who worked in the World Trade Center's North Tower, brother James Giaccone recalled. But over time, he started to focus instead on memories of the flourishing man his brother was.

If his remains were identified and given to the family now, "it would just reinforce the horror that his person endured that day, and it would open wounds that I don't think I want to open," Giaccone said Monday as he visited the 9/11 memorial plaza in New York.

"So I am OK with the way it is right now."

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