Denby Fawcett: Why Some Maui Fire Victims Will Never Be Found - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The sorrow of Lahaina is families and friends’ uncertainty as they wait for official word about missing loved ones that may never come..

Maui is about to wrap up its ocean and land search for individuals still unaccounted for after the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire.

As of Monday, 99% of the burn zone and the ocean fronting it has been searched for human remains, leaving the county ready to begin the next phase of its operation — the removal of toxic materials from the scorched landscape.

The confirmed death toll has remained at 115 for a week, but only 45 people have been identified by name after their families were notified. Six others have been identified with their names withheld because their families haven’t been located or notified.

Names of the confirmed dead now emerge slowly in twos and threes.

What is saddest to me is the admission Friday by Maui Police Chief John Pelletier that some of the dead may never be found or identified.

Flames from the fire roaring down the mountain incinerated parts of Lahaina making it s impossible in instances for search crews and cadaver dogs combing the rubble of the burn zone to find remains.

“This is the honest answer. We are doing everything we can to recover as much as we can of a human being as possible,” said Pelletier.

Pelletier mentioned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At Ground Zero, 22 years after the some 3,000 perished more than 1,100 of the dead remain unidentified.

He said of Lahaina: “It is possible years from now we find something or someone to lead us to believe we have human remains.”

The fire was so intense that it destroyed some 2,200 buildings and melted some vehicles. Officials say some remains may have been commingled or burned beyond recognition. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

DNA identification from extremely destructive events like the Lahaina fire is a  painstaking process, especially when it involves crushing just small shards of bone to extract DNA. That extracted genetic material must then be matched to DNA of the deceased or their relatives.

It’s not always possible to extract DNA from human remains.

Collagen inside bones, a source of DNA, can be destroyed in high temperature fires like those on Maui, John Byrd said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.                                                                                

Byrd is the laboratory director of the Defense Departmentʻs POW/MIA Accountability Agency, headquarted at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The agency sent six forensic anthropologists to Lahaina to help.

The DPAA is charged with identifying the 81,000 Americans missing from past military conflicts going back to World War II.

Another problem with the Lahaina search and rescue effort is that there is no handle on exactly how many people are still unaccounted for.

A validated list of 388 individuals compiled by the FBI that was released Thursday is expected to be reduced, but officials cautioned the number would fluctuate as some people would also likely be added.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier says the county has received more than 100 calls from informants saying people on the list are alive. Those reports must be verified before a name can be taken off the list.

And the validated list is only part of the picture because it includes only individuals whose first and last names are known and who were reported missing by people with verified phone numbers.

Other unaccounted for people have been reported but not with enough detailed information to work on.

“The 388 names are a subset of a larger list. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we still have hundreds of other names where we still need more information,” said Steven Merrill, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu field office. 

One of the last areas to be searched by divers was the ocean fronting the burn zone where many jumped into the water to escape the flames and explosions.

Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura said Friday diving crews did not get into the nearshore sea to search for remains until Aug. 19, more than a week after the fire.  He said it was necessary first to determine if the water contained pollutants that might harm the divers.

Experts from all over the country — experienced in examining human remains from disasters such as 9/11 and the 2018 Camp Fire in California, and some forensic experts who have helped Ukrainians uncover alleged Russian war crimes have all arrived in Lahaina to assist.

But it is a slow and difficult process, and a sad one.

The sorrow of the Lahaina fire is the uncertainty for the families and friends of the missing as they wait for word about their loved ones — words that may never come.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

House Oversight Committee Will Launch Federal Probe Into Maui Fire Response

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

This is the first local article or news story that I've come across that acknowledges what we already know. I don't why others aren't acknowledging this as well since not being straightforward with people gives them a false sense of hope.

elrod · 3 weeks ago

Never having the remains of your loved ones positively ID'ed,...not knowing exactly where & how their life ended, not get that closure,...words can't describe what their survivors must be feeling.

KalihiValleyHermit · 3 weeks ago

A memorial, shrine must be erected for remembering the deceased victims accounted and unaccounted for. Much like a memorial location for the NY Twin Towers. Even the Pearl Harbor Memorial comes to mind.Build it somewhere in Lahaina. Where it can be seen for miles; space even.There's no need to argue over location, zoning height restriction. Or how eventually it's going to turn into a tourist attraction ... tourist monetary contributions will keep the memorial open.There's going to be arguments over how it looks. Just make it look respectful for the victims and their families. Make it look first cabin.

808Refugee · 3 weeks ago

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