There are 115 confirmed fatalities, but as the search wraps up there are still hundreds who are missing.

Maui County officials acknowledged for the first time Friday that there could be dozens if not hundreds of people whose remains may never be recovered after perishing in the deadly wildfire that ripped through the historic town of Lahaina.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters at a press conference that the number of confirmed fatalities has remained at 115 for days despite the fact that search crews using cadaver dogs to comb through the rubble were expected to have gone through the entire fire area by the end of Friday.

Divers have also been searching the nearshore waters around the disaster zone for much of the past week, but so far have not found any bodies.

Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier speaks during a press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. The new interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira was announced. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier talked about the difficulties in finding and identifying fire victims on Friday. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Pellitier said the number of confirmed fatalities will likely change significantly over time as forensic analysis is performed and more information is gleaned from the community regarding the people who have been reported missing and unaccounted for.

“We’re doing everything we can to make as much of a recovery as possible,” Pelletier said. “We also know that we may have some commingled recoveries so I’m giving you that number based on what we have and we believe. In some ways, it’s an estimate.”

Pelletier referenced the 9/11 terrorist attack that killed more than 2,700 people in New York City.
To this day, the remains of nearly 1,100 people have yet to be identified, although that work is continuing more than 20 years later.

“It’s entirely possible years from now that we will find something or someone that leads us to believe that we’re recovering new remains,” Pelletier said. “There’s no secrecy or hidden agenda. We’re going as fast as we can, but we’re doing it the right way.”

Maui County has been working with the FBI to develop a comprehensive list of people who are unaccounted for. Over the past two weeks the number has fluctuated, from hundreds to thousands and back down again.

On Thursday, the county released a list of 388 names of people who remained unaccounted for since the Aug. 8 blaze. That list included only those names that could be validated by the FBI.

Steven Merrill, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu office, said Friday that releasing that list to the public “produced a great deal of information” that has allowed officials to remove 100 names from the list.

He said that while those individuals were found “safe and sound” there are still hundreds more names that must be tracked down. He also made clear that the 388 names were a subset of a larger list that includes partial names and identifying information that still must be validated.

“We care about every single person on that list and we will not rest until we know how each of those people are doing,” Merrill said.

He added that he encourages the community to continue coming forward with more information and he welcomes adding new names to the list of the missing so that everyone can be accounted for. Like Pelletier he urged patience.

In addition to providing an update on the search and recovery efforts, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced that the county had hired Darryl Oliviera as the interim director of the Maui Emergency Management Agency.

Interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira speaks during a Maui County press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. Oliveira was named to the interim position today. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Darryl Oliveira, a former Big Island fire chief, was named as the interim administrator for the Maui Emergency Management Agency. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Oliveira will at least temporarily replace Herman Andaya, who resigned a few days after the Aug. 8 fire.

Andaya has faced widespread criticism for his decision to not activate warning sirens as the fire was spreading down the hill above Lahaina.

Andaya was not on Maui when fires broke out in Upcountry and Lahaina. He has publicly defended the decision not to activate the county’s warning sirens that are used to alert people to the need to evacuate.

Questions have also been raised about whether he was qualified to hold the position as the head of the county’s emergency management agency given he had little to no experience in that area when he was hired.

Oliveira, meanwhile, has a long history in public safety and emergency management operations.

He’s a former Big Island fire chief and top administrator of that county’s civil defense agency. He’s responded to numerous natural disasters, including hurricanes and volcanic eruptions.

Bissen said that experience will be critical for the county moving forward.

“As Maui deals with this unprecedented disaster, our response and recovery efforts will need strong leadership,” Bissen said. “Chief Oliveira’s history of emergency management and community leadership will be an asset for us as we deal with a wildfire disaster and its aftermath.”

Also on Friday, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii said nine people who sustained injuries in the Maui fires were being treated in Oahu hospitals. The family members or next of kin of those patients have been notified, or are being notified, the association said.

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

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