Hawaii officials seek help in identifying remains of wildfire victims

Officials ask residents to submit DNA samples as at least 1,100 people remain missing after wildfires.

A person with a face covering visits a residential area devastated by a recent wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A person with a face covering visits a residential area devastated by a recent wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii [Jae C. Hong/AP Photo]

Officials in Hawaii have urged residents to submit DNA samples to help in the identification of human remains found in the ashes of a fast-moving wildfire on the island of Maui that killed at least 115 people earlier this month.

According to authorities, at least 1,100 people are still missing, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seeking family members’ help in identifying the remains of the dead, the AFP reported.

Special Agent Steven Merrill told reporters on Tuesday, that the number of missing people was likely to rise.

“We’re cross-referencing all the lists so that we can determine who in fact truly is still unaccounted for,” Merrill said.

Investigators acknowledged the possibility that not all of the remains of victims from the fire that started on August 8 on Maui will ever be found.

The tourist town of Lahaina, home to 12,000 people, was all but wiped off the map, with thousands of missing people initially appearing on lists maintained by various organisations, including the police, Red Cross and shelters.

Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Martin, tasked with heading up the family assistance centre, said that he has spoken with experts who have handled DNA sampling in mass-casualty disasters elsewhere, and that he is seeing less willingness in Hawaii.

“The number of family members who are coming in to provide DNA samples is a lot lower than they’ve seen in other disasters,” he said.

Martin said he could not explain why people seemed less willing to provide DNA samples – so far 104 had been collected. He added that he hoped his reassurances that the DNA provided would only be used to identify remains, and would not be transferred to any law enforcement database or agency, would help more family members come forward.

Investigators said the list of the approximately 1,100 missing people was a complex jumble that included some people identified by a single name, others with missing data like birth dates, some people whose genders were not clear and also that there were likely duplicate reports of the same people as the list is compiled from varied sources.

They gave no forecast on when or if they might ever finish the task of accounting for everybody on the list. They also said they could not yet give an estimate on what the total number of people killed by the fire would eventually be.

Maui police chief John Pelletier urged people to provide DNA and file a police report with as much information as possible if they have relatives unaccounted for.

“If you feel you’ve got a family member that’s unaccounted for, give the DNA,” he said. “Do the report. Let’s figure this out. A name with no callback doesn’t help anybody.”

Pelletier said authorities were refining the data and were hoping to publish a verified list of missing persons “in the next few days”.

The devastation was so bad, though, that Pelletier warned that even after all the searching for remains is over, “I can’t guarantee … that we got everybody.”

Source: News Agencies