Experts unite to identify victims found in Maui

12:26 20.08.2023

In the aftermath of a devastating wildfire that swept through Lahaina, Hawaii, a team of specialists from the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) program has been tirelessly working to identify the charred remains of the victims. Inside a temporary morgue near the Maui County coroner's office, forensic pathologists, X-ray technicians, fingerprint experts, and forensic dentists labor for 12 hours a day, facing the immense challenge of identifying the victims of this cataclysmic event.

The number of victims remains unknown, with hundreds still on the lists of those missing. In some cases, the fire has consumed all but the barest remnants of the bodies, making identification even more difficult. The importance of their work cannot be overstated, as families desperately seek answers about the fate of their loved ones and yearn for an opportunity to say goodbye. However, despite the death toll in Lahaina surpassing 100, only a handful of victims have been officially identified, highlighting the long and arduous road ahead for the team.

The Maui DMORT, led by Frank Sebastian, a retired medical examiner from the Seattle area, is just one of the ten regional DMORTs in the United States. Comprising more than 600 civilian members, these teams spring into action during mass fatality incidents that overwhelm local authorities, such as airplane crashes, hurricanes, and mass attacks like the September 11, 2001, hijackings. The members of DMORT are individuals who already confront death in their day jobs as funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners, making them better equipped than most to compartmentalize their emotions and focus on the task at hand.

The Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for overseeing DMORTs, has deployed three dozen members to Maui, including logistics staff and mental health specialists. They have also transported one of three Disaster Portable Morgue Units, which consists of 22.5 tons of supplies and equipment needed to set up a fully functioning mortuary. This includes examination tables, X-ray machines, and fingerprinting equipment.

The work in the temporary morgue is divided into two categories: postmortem and "antemortem." Search-and-rescue teams combing through Lahaina bring suspected remains to the morgue daily. Each set of remains is assigned a tracker who stays with them throughout the process. The remains then move from station to station depending on their condition. For example, a human body would undergo fingerprinting and have various features recorded, such as hair color, height, weight, and tattoos. X-rays and dental examinations are conducted to gather further information, and skeletal remains are examined by forensic pathologists and anthropologists for any possible clues. DNA samples have become a crucial tool, with the Maui team partnering with a company that can process DNA in just hours. Simultaneously, a separate group known as the "Victim Identification Center" team is collecting details from surviving relatives, including DNA swabs, the names of victims' dentists, and information about potential fingerprint records.

However, identifying victims of a wildfire presents unique challenges. Intensely burned bone fragments may no longer contain usable DNA strands, and dental records may have been destroyed in the blaze. Paul Sledzik, a forensic anthropologist and former DMORT commander, explains that the Maui wildfire is what experts call an open disaster, where the number of victims and their identities are uncertain and potentially unknowable. This stands in contrast to a closed disaster, such as a plane crash, where the airline has a list of passengers and crew. Resolving the list of missing people in Hawaii will be an additional challenge.

The federal DMORT program was established in 1992, following the USAir Flight 405 crash on New York's Long Island, which claimed 27 lives. While teams initially responded to major transportation accidents, cemetery floods, and natural disasters, the September 11, 2001, attacks marked a turning point for DMORT. They played a crucial role in assisting city authorities in sifting through thousands of remains. Since then, cities and states have developed their own versions of DMORT, but federal teams remain vital for disasters in remote locations or those with fewer resources.

David Hunt, a funeral director in Indiana who commands two regional DMORTs, recalls negotiating with the Haitian military after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake to identify and repatriate American victims. Hunt reflects on the overwhelming experience of standing on the grounds of the World Trade Center in 2001, saying, "When I look back on it, I'm just a small-town funeral director, and just to be involved in some of these historical events... sometimes it's overwhelming." Wildfires are a relatively new area of response for DMORTs, with teams previously deployed to the 2018 Camp fire in California and the 2020 Oregon wildfires. However, as scientists predict an increase in mass fatality incidents due to climate change exacerbating natural disasters, DMORTs may face more frequent challenges in the future.

Ultimately, the work of DMORT is driven by a commitment to serving the families affected by these tragedies. Paul Sledzik, who commanded a team sent to the crash site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, following the September 11 attacks, explains, "We do this work for the families. We never use the term closure, because I've worked with enough families to know that doesn't exist, but we hope to provide them with the knowledge that their loved ones are gone." DMORT members understand the importance of their mission, and despite the emotional toll, they strive to bring closure and solace to grieving families.

As the world grapples with an era of simultaneous crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing natural disasters, the demand for DMORT teams may continue to rise. Dawn O'Connell, assistant U.S. secretary for preparedness and response for.

/ Sunday, August 20, 2023, 12:26 PM /

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