Many of the remains were burned beyond recognition, complicating the effort to give closure to loved ones.

A week after flames consumed a historic town on Maui, only three of the 99 people confirmed dead have been identified using fingerprints.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Monday that the county was in the process of notifying their families and will publicize their names. But the other 96 were so badly burned that they had no fingerprints to go on.

The grim revelation came as people trying to find hundreds of loved ones still unaccounted for after the fire that spread rapidly through Lahaina last Tuesday had their cheeks swabbed to produce a DNA sample, marking a new phase in the slow and painful effort to find and identify the dead.

An estimated 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, officials said, stressing that included those who were simply unable to make contact after the wildfire burned fiber optic cables, rendering communications impossible across much of West Maui. 

A search team member works through one of the destroyed buildings looking for any signs of life in Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

A 90-member search team and 20 cadaver dogs carefully searched the rubble and burned-out houses — aided by forensic dentists, forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists and DNA specialists from the National Disaster Medical System’s Disaster Mortuary Operating Response Team.

Federal investigators leading the body recovery and identification effort aim to deliver family members of the deceased a measure of closure and the opportunity to deliver the body to grave or urn. But the grim reality is that, in many cases, there are no bodies to recover.

“It’s not just ash on your clothing when you take it off,” Pelletier said at a press conference, recalling the words of the head of the FEMA body recovery team. “It’s our loved ones.”

The blaze turned the air so hot it melted metal — gas lines, fiber optic cables and vehicles. Experts say they expect some of the deceased were at least partially cremated by the fire, making identification efforts difficult, if not impossible.

“If cars with metal frames aren’t holding up in that kind of heat, then the human body isn’t going to hold up, either,” said Theresa Reynolds, an investigator at the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office.

The heartbreaking juxtaposition of the beauty of Lanai seen beyond the fire-ravaged, abandoned vehicles on Front Street in Lahaina on Maui. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Several medical professionals said that they’re bracing for the possibility of hundreds more casualties as well as an enormous need for trauma and grief support in the coming days and weeks.

The list of the missing diminished on Sunday when officials discovered 60 displaced people sheltering with a West Maui family, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen told reporters.

Connectivity in West Maui improved over the weekend with the arrival of a tethered drone and a pair of Wi-Fi trucks equipped with cell phone charging stations. But most of the region remains in the throes of a telecommunications blackout.

Family Searches

People who still haven’t located loved ones who were in the Lahaina region that day have launched their own searches, mining satellite imagery, social media posts, cellphone location data and text messages to retrace their movements. A handful of families have already used social media to publicly identify their loved ones as victims even if authorities haven’t confirmed the deaths yet.

Lahaina resident Franklin Trejos died in the backseat of his vehicle while trying to shield his 3-year-old golden retriever Sam from the encroaching flames, the Associated Press reported. Carole Hartley’s remains were found on the Lahaina property where she lived, her sister wrote on Facebook. Faaso and Malui Fonua, their daughter Salote Takafua and their grandson Tony Takafua died in a car while trying to escape, according to social media posts from family members.

At Kahului Community Center, families have been filing in to provide DNA samples. Authorities aim to collect saliva from the parents, children or siblings of those still missing and compare them to DNA extracted from the marrow of bones and bone fragments found at the site.

Families may also be asked to provide information to investigators about fingerprint records, body and dental X-rays, medical history reports and any broken bones, tooth fillings, physical deformities or medical implants, forensic experts say. When the skeletal remains are largely intact but there are no fingerprints, investigators can use this information to identify a body much quicker than DNA testing. The length of time it takes to make a DNA match depends on the quality of the samples and the availability of DNA labs.

“The role of family members and the family liaisons who are collecting information about missing people is really critical because we need as much information as possible at all times to make identifications,” said Ariel Gruenthal-Rankin, a forensic anthropologist at University of Hawaii West Oahu.

DNA is the primary identification tool following disasters and mass casualty events. But it can take as long as a year to get a match, making the grieving process for family members particularly painful.

The family of Lahaina resident Tony Simpson, a 42-year-old EMT shown here before going missing, still holds out hope he will turn up. (Courtesy: Nichol Simpson)

Identifying burned skeletal remains is challenging when the body has been burned beyond recognition.

But DNA can still be extracted from a tooth or bone marrow to expedite identification using DNA samples collected from family members, according to a scientific study conducted after a disastrous 2018 California wildfire season.

There are different methods of identifying burned bodies depending on the shape of the remains. The condition of the corpse is determined by the intensity of the fire — the inferno reached 1,000 degrees, according to Gov. Josh Green — and duration of a body’s exposure to it.

The timeframe for DNA testing typically depends on the quality of the DNA samples and the availability of the few labs in the U.S. that do this kind of work.

“Very, very sadly, this process is going to take a long time — months — to get everyone’s family identified or reunited,” Reynolds said.

‘The Comparison Is With 9/11’

When there are no remains because the body has essentially disintegrated, forensic anthropologists rely on circumstantial evidence, a difficult, often uncertain method. This might include interviews with witnesses who can place a person at the scene of a fire.

“I hate to reference this but the comparison is with 9/11, where there are a lot of people that never were truly found,” Reynolds said.

In Hawaii, a person cannot be declared legally dead without a body until he or she has been missing for five years.

It took about six weeks for authorities to complete the search for bodies in Paradise, California, after the 2018 Camp Fire tore through the town, killing 85 people and destroying 18,000 structures, said Lt. Anthony Borgman of the Paradise Police Department.

“If cars with metal frames aren’t holding up in that kind of heat, then the human body isn’t going to hold up, either.”

Theresa Reynolds of the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office

The search for the missing was challenging there too because the human remains had burned to ash, Borgman said.

“For us, most of our victims were in their own homes on their own property, so identifications were a lot easier than in a place like Maui where it’s a tourist destination,” Borgman said. “Identification when you have tourism and hotels in the area is daunting and difficult because, well, who are those people? Where are they from? Getting those answers, it could be awhile.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Camp fire, a loose list of people missing or unaccounted for by family and friends swelled to 3,000, Borgman said. Within days the list was reduced to roughly 1,300. It took a month and a half to narrow down the list to the 85 dead.

Family searching for loved ones from afar were advised to contact the Family Assistance Center at Kahului Community Center to make a plan for submitting a DNA sample at their local police department, medical lab or hospital.

Hope Waning

Nichol Simpson, who lives in Thailand, said it’s been excrutiating being unable to physically search for her 42-year-old brother Tony Simpson, an emergency medical technician from Lahaina who has not been heard from since 11 a.m. Tuesday, when he sent a text message with a photo of wind-whipped power lines to his father, who lives in Belize.

There’s been little to do but hover on social media, imploring people on Maui to search for her brother, a blue-eyed jokester who drives a yellow motorcycle and an old convertible and likes to swim, bake banana bread and restore tattered classic novels, Simpson said. She’s considered flying to Maui but doesn’t want to add to the chaos of an unwieldy disaster response.

She’s still hopeful he will turn up, but that hope is fraying.

“I know if Tony sees anyone in distress, he will help out,” Simpson said. “He trained for emergencies. He’s calm under pressure. And he’s a person that you want to be with in a disaster. That’s part of what makes this so hard. Because of course he didn’t evacuate. Of course he stayed to help.”

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

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