In a shocking turn of events, authorities in Hawaii have readjusted the death toll from the deadly Maui wildfire down to at least 97 people, after previously reporting at least 115 fatalities. The announcement came after further testing revealed that some of the victims had multiple DNA samples, leading to an overestimate of the number of deaths. Additionally, the number of missing individuals has decreased from 41 to 31, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier.
During a news conference on Friday, John Byrd, laboratory director with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, cautioned that the current number of deaths should be considered a minimum and that the toll could potentially rise. Determining the exact death toll from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina has proven to be especially challenging due to the extensive damage caused by the fire and the chaotic evacuation efforts. Officials have stated that in some cases, animal remains were mistakenly collected alongside human remains.
So far, 74 of the deceased have been positively identified, Pelletier revealed. The Lahaina fire is now officially recognized as the deadliest in the United States in over a century. The scenes during the fire were described as a hellscape, with some residents tragically dying in their cars, while others desperately jumped into the ocean or attempted to flee for safety. The blaze left much of the historic town reduced to ash.
Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, Maui County physician's coroner, shared heartbreaking details of the victims' final moments, saying, "When the fire broke out, people ran together, they huddled together. They're holding each other in those moments. Some of them were even holding pets." This has led to the inadvertent commingling of remains, making the identification process even more complex and time-consuming.
John Byrd explained that the initial high death toll was due to multiple factors, including the initial inventory count of body bags, which tended to overestimate the number of individuals present. He emphasized that the new lower tally is a result of the ongoing forensic investigation and is a normal progression towards an accurate final count. Byrd acknowledged that they have not yet reached that final accurate number.
Pelletier clarified that only individuals who have had a missing person report filed with the Maui Police Department are included on the verified missing list. He also noted that if a missing person report has not been filed for someone more than five weeks after the fire, it is unlikely that the person is actually missing.
The identification process for the fire victims involves more than just DNA testing, as anthropologists are assisting and clues from dental work and medical devices like pacemakers are being gathered whenever possible. Officials expressed relief at finally having a better understanding of the number of dead and those still unaccounted for in the devastating wildfire. Pelletier described it as a "little ray of hope" amidst the tragedy, as it provides an opportunity to identify and reunite every single person lost with their families.