Hawaii officials say DNA tests drop Maui fire death count to 97

FILE - destroyed homes are visible in the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday, Sept. 11, that there have been 23 weather extreme events in America that cost at least $1 billion this year through August, eclipsing the year-long record total of 22 set in 2020. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Hawaii officials say DNA tests drop Maui fire death count to 97

Sept. 15, 2023

Authorities in Hawaii have adjusted the number of deaths from the deadly Maui wildfires down to at least 97 people.

Previously officials said they believed at least 115 people had died in the fires, but further testing showed they had multiple DNA samples from some of those who died. 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 press conference Friday afternoon that the current number of dead should be considered a minimum, because its possible that toll could rise.

Determining the death toll from the Aug. 8 wildfires 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 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 Aug. 8 blaze reduced much of the historic town to ash.

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 youve got two bags that were the same person or you have two bags that were the same two people but you didnt realize that.

The numbers start a little too high on the morgue side and eventually settle


until at some point its going to be a final accurate number. I would say were 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 hasnt been filed for someone more than five weeks after the fire, then that person probably isnt actually missing, the chief said.

Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel

, Maui County physicians coroner, wasnt supposed to start the job until October. But he advanced

sped up

his start date and arrived on Maui from New York City soon after the fire. Until he arrived, Mauis medical examiner duties were shared with other counties.

When this happened it was time to drop everything and come here, he said.

He described how some remains arrived commingled.

When the fire broke out, people ran together, they huddled together, Stuelpnagel said. Theyre holding each other in those moments. Some of them were even holding pets.

Stuelpnagel said people working on the identification process are trying to reunify people to have them as whole as theyre 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 Aug. 8 blaze.

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, theres a little ray of hope right there and so that really is incredible.