Desperate for answers, families are still scouring the island and the internet for loved ones missing since the West Maui wildfires.

As paddlers splashed in the waves off of Cove Beach in Kihei on Saturday morning, Nichol Simpson walked through the park with a stack of flyers in her hands.

Each one displayed photos of her brother, Anthony “Tony” Simpson, a Lahaina resident and EMT who has been missing since a rapidly spreading wildfire destroyed the town on Aug. 8.

In the photos, the 43-year-old can be seen smiling in a crisp, white EMT uniform, sitting across a table holding a drink with a tiny umbrella and polishing the mirrors on his black and yellow motorcycle. 

Simpson last heard from her brother on Aug. 8 when he let her know he was having internet issues at home and texted her a picture of a downed power line. 

Anthony “Tony” Simpson, 43, has been missing since wildfires destroyed Lahaina on Aug. 8. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

Since then, the official death toll of the wildfires has risen to 115 and Maui County on Thursday released a list of 388 people it confirmed were unaccounted for. Officials removed about 100 names based on new information, but Tony’s name remains on it.

“We’re just continuing to search because there’s nothing else that we can do,” said Simpson, who flew to Maui on Wednesday from her home in Thailand. “We’ve been trying to get official information every single day and haven’t received anything, and so now we’re here.”

Giving DNA In Person

Shortly after landing on Maui, Simpson went to the Family Assistance Center to submit a DNA sample. Her sister, who lives on the East Coast, already submitted DNA last week on the mainland, but Simpson said it was unclear if the sample was ever registered in the database.

“One of the main reasons we came here was to be able to give DNA in person,” she said.

On Friday, she went to the Maui Police Department headquarters in Wailuku but was told she needed an appointment. She was then given a number for an “emergency operations center,” which she called.

“They were friendly,” she said. “But nobody could answer my questions, and that’s the frustrating part.”

She wants to know if the area around her brother’s house at 363 Keone St. and his car have been searched. She wants to know if the DNA she submitted at the Family Assistance Center has been checked against any of the bodies found.

Holding Onto Hope

Meanwhile, she’s keeping in touch with multiple families who are also still missing loved ones and relying on community members on Maui to help with her search.

Simpson said she thinks it’s possible her brother could be somewhere on the island helping people since the fires tore through the neighborhood where he lived on Keone Street. 

Simpson has posted flyers with Tony’s picture around Maui, including at community centers and hotels where displaced families are staying. 

Her brother also has strong connections in the homeless community, she said, so she planned to visit various encampments on the island and ask if anybody had seen him. 

“I don’t know if he’s helping somebody, I don’t know if he could be in a different part of the island,” she said. “There are a lot of possibilities that are outside of the statistical probability, but Tony has had some wild experiences.”

His path to becoming an EMT, for example, wasn’t the smoothest. 

Family members are posting fliers around Maui with pictures of their missing loved ones as they continue their searches. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

“He used to work at Bad Ass Coffee on Front Street,” she said, but he had a bad accident and had to be airlifted about 10 years ago.

“He broke his neck, and the EMTs were so amazing and helpful and calm,” she said. “And it made such an impression on him that he decided to become an EMT as soon as he could walk again.”

His sense of adventure but also his kindness, generosity and tendency to focus on the well-being of others has made it possible for his family to picture him still out there somewhere, helping those in need.

“We kind of all can see him walking out and being like, ‘Whew, I have a story for you,’” said Simpson. 

Until she gets an answer, she said, she plans to stay on Maui and keep searching. 

“Whatever has happened to Tony has already happened,” she said. “He either died in the fire, helping someone no doubt, or he is alive and unable to communicate. And we’re still holding onto that hope.”

‘Trying To Find Faith’

Maui County said Saturday that almost all of the worst-hit area has been searched after crews with specially trained dogs spent weeks combing through the rubble.

Officials have held near-daily press briefings but say the painstaking process of finding and identifying remains cannot be rushed. Police Chief John Pelletier said Friday that the full toll from the fire may never be known as some remains may be commingled and unidentifiable.

The number of missing was more than 1,000 in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Maui County finally released a list of verified names after piecing together details from earlier versions. But officials cautioned the number would continue to fluctuate as new information is received.

Many people who had simply been out of contact due communications blackouts were found to be safe.

Darimi Martinez lives in Chiapas, Mexico, and is still searching for her brother, Ediomedes “Eddy” Castillo, whom she hasn’t heard from since the Lahaina fires. Castillo lived next door to Tony Simpson in Lahaina and worked as a gardener. 

“We are destroyed and desperate,” she said, speaking in Spanish by phone from Mexico. 

Martinez said she and her family members have been using Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to try to spread the word about her brother and find out if anyone has seen him. He is also included on the county’s official list of the missing.

Castillo’s 10-year-old son submitted DNA at the Family Assistance Center this week. 

“I still have hope and faith,” she said. “I believe that God protected him and will bring him back home alive. It’s my biggest wish.”

Ediomedes Castillo has been missing since the Lahaina fires. Many of his family members are in Mexico and are using social media to search for him. (Courtesy of Eli Dolores Perez)

Martinez described her brother as a humble, giving man, who always wanted to help others. She is eight months pregnant and unable to travel to Maui to help search for her brother, she said. It’s been an especially difficult time because she lost her father about a week before the fires. 

“I’m trying to find strength wherever I have it so I don’t affect my baby,” she said.

Simpson said she’s been comforted by the fact that the Maui community has come together to support one another despite the immense pain everyone is going through.

She’s staying with a local family that offered to host her and her husband and lent her their car. She also receives calls nearly every day from locals who give her new ideas of who she can talk to and where she can check for signs of her brother. 

“I’m here because my brother is missing, but I’m not lost on the fact that so many other people are suffering,” she said. 

And for her brother, she had one succinct message. 

“He probably already knows it,” she said, “but just that he’s loved and that we’re looking.”

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

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