Officials announced Friday that 97 people are now believed to have died in the Maui wildfires, instead of 115, a surprising development after initial fears that many more lives had been claimed by the disaster.
Maui County Medical Examiner Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel said at a news conference that the process of confirming the dead victims and identifying them through DNA analysis, Aug. 8 said it was hard and changing from the fire that destroyed most of Lahaina.
This is the first time Maui’s death toll has declined. In some cases, Dr. Stoelpnagel explained that forensic examiners have confirmed that multiple sets of remains belong to the same person. He added that the 16 remains found by investigators were inhuman.
“Having a lower number is good news, that’s for sure,” said Dr. Stoelpnagel said Friday.
More than three weeks later, officials said at least 115 people were dead and hundreds more were reported missing, a number that remained uncertain as investigators sifted through the wreckage of central Lahaina.
Hawaii leaders and residents initially feared hundreds may have died in the fast-moving fire, which trapped victims in vehicles on clogged roads as they tried to escape. At one point, thousands were reported missing.
But the number of unaccounted for is now down to 31, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Friday. Authorities have found most of the people after releasing several versions of lists containing the names of those considered missing.
Identifying the dead was a massive effort that took more than a month, requiring DNA samples from the family, dental experts and handling the remains, which were burned beyond identification.
Dr. Stuelpnagel said there have been cases where they kept someone’s remains, but later found bones with the same DNA.
He said there were 16 cases of dehumanization, “mixed in with others, so there’s lots and lots of moving information in this situation.”
He added: “We’re looking at surgical hardware, pacemakers, even pacemaker serial numbers. We’re trying every method to make sure we identify these people. It’s going to take a lot of time.”
Such ambiguity is similar to what happens during war, where it’s unclear how many people died, said John Byrd, director of the Department of Defense’s forensics lab. Multiple companies collecting scraps add to the confusion.
“When you start doing more analysis and testing, you realize you’ve got two bags that were actually the same person,” he said.