Sep. 16—Officials caution that the death toll is fluid and identifying the remains of those who died in a 2, 000-degree firestorm is as complicated as identifying those kiled at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
WAILUKU—Maui police Friday revised down the number of people killed in the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire to at least 97 from 115 after forensic analysis helped clarify the number of dead.
Officials cautioned that the death toll is fluid and identifying the remains of those who died in a 2, 000-degree firestorm is as complicated as identifying those kiled at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Speaking at a news conference at the county building in Wailuku, Maui police Chief John Pelletier, Maui Medical Examiner Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, and John Byrd, laboratory director of the Defense POW /MIA Accounting Agency, which is running the forensics center, explained that closer inspection of remains and DNA samples collected from relatives helped to clarify the death statistics.
The death toll had stood at 115 since Aug. 21.
"We still have DNA samples that are being tested. That 97 ... take it as an 'at least, '" Byrd told reporters. "People are working seven days a week at the forensic center on those cases. We're giving you the best numbers that we have based on a lot of really hard work. There is not perfect certainty, but we hope in the near future we will achieve that perfect certainty."
Maui police also released the names of two more people who died in the wildfire, as well as an updated "unaccounted for " list that now stands at 31.
The two Lahaina residents identified Friday after their families were notified were Marilou Dias, 60, and June Anbe, 78.
Of the 97 known fatalities, 65 have been publicly identified after next-of-kin notification, while nine others have been identified but their families have not been located or notified, Maui police said.
Pelletier said the process that officials took to understand the scope of the situation took combining diverse data sources from the public and investigators.
The Morgue Investigation Notification Task Force, based in the MPD Morgue Office in Wailuku, is operating seven days a week to match DNA samples from family members with bone fragments and other human remains found in the rubble of Lahaina.
It is staffed with physicians, investigators, forensic scientists and anthropologists and supported by the laboratory at Joint POW /MIA Accounting Command, whose mission is to find all Americans missing in connection with military conflicts.
JPAC personnel work with partners to recover and identify remains of Americans unaccounted-for from all conflicts from World War II through the Gulf War.
The forensic work involves reviewing identifying information such as X-rays, dental exam details, medical device implants such as hip or knee replacements, fingerprints and facial identifications.
Investigators are also looking at artifact identification, such as rings, memorabilia or items that may have been on an unaccounted-for person when the fires swept through Lahaina, while also analyzing mobile phone data like call logs, data traffic and other digital footprints.
There were about 16 cases of nonhuman remains that came in that had to be verified as nonhuman, said Stuelpnagel, who worked on 9 /11 identification cases in his previous role in New York City.
Clarifying whether remains were human or animal extended the process.
"It's good news to have a lower number that's for darn sure, " said Stuelpnagel. "There are a lot of things we are unifying as we work the cases and work the numbers and the samples. Things are coalescing to lower numbers. It's hard to explain ...it's like a very complex equation to get to where we are."
Separately, Maui County released the latest, and fourth, FBI-MPD list of those still unaccounted for since Aug. 8.
Thirty-one people are now listed as unaccounted for, down from 66 last Friday, as police are focusing only on the cases where a formal missing person report has been filed.
"If you have a loved one that is missing because of the fire event ...we need you to do the MPD report, " said Pelletier.
More than 3, 200 people were reported unaccounted for before the FBI determined at least 2, 779 of them were alive and well, Maui police reported Friday.
A week earlier a "third list " with 66 names had been released.
"The FBI was able to resolve 36 of the 66 individuals as either confirmed deceased or safe and removed them from the 'third list.' Currently, only one new individual has been added to this list as unaccounted for. In addition, the 80 names of possible unaccounted for from the previous press release have all been vetted and were either found and /or found to be unsubstantiated, " according to authorities on Friday.
The names on the latest list of 31 were deemed credible as long as the following criteria were provided : the first and last name of the person who is unaccounted for ; a verified contact number for the person who reported the individual as unaccounted for ; and /or additional verified information received reporting the individual as unaccounted for.
"The names on the list were compiled by the FBI and were deemed credible as long as the following criteria were provided : The first and last name of the person who is unaccounted for ; a verified contact number for the person who reported the individual as unaccounted for ; and / or additional verified information received reporting the individual as unaccounted for, " according to the news release.