Additional DNA testing along with dental and other analyses have reduced the number of dead and missing, authorities said.

The number of people who died in the fire that swept through Lahaina has dropped from 115 to 97, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Friday.

He also said the number of missing now stands at 31, down from an initial high of over 3,000 people.

“For the first time we now have a clearer picture of what this really is,” Pelletier said at an afternoon news conference.

Officials also cautioned the death toll may change again amid ongoing identification efforts.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier addresses a question during a press conference Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in Wailuku. The gathering was to share information on those missing and the process to identify remains found in the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier’s department has led the effort to identify the remains found in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 fire that razed much of the historic town of Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui County has given the number of “confirmed fatalities” as 115 since Aug. 21 as authorities appealed to people with loved ones who remained unaccounted for to give DNA to help identify those found in the search of the hardest-hit area in the historic seaside town.

Maui police in a news release Friday that of the more than 3,200 people who were initially unaccounted for after the fire, at least 2,779 were deemed safe by the FBI. The rest — except for the 31 substantiated as missing on Friday — were considered unsubstantiated. That’s because they lacked a first or last name or no credible person could be found to verify that they were indeed missing, police said.

The police department also released the names of two more victims — Marilou Dias, 60, and June Anbe, 78, both of Lahaina. In all, the names of 65 individuals have been released while nine others have been identified but their names withheld pending family notification, according to the police.

After brief opening remarks on Friday, the police chief turned the press conference over to Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, a pathologist newly hired by Maui County to help identify human remains from the fire, which leveled an estimated 2,200 structures.

Stuelpnagel, who is now Maui County’s medical examiner, said additional DNA testing as well as other analytical methods resulted in the lower death toll.

“We have had dental experts, a whole team at dentists looking at DNA and dental comparisons. We’re even looking at surgical hardware, pacemaker, pacemaker serial numbers. We’re trying every single modality we have to make sure that we identify these people. It does take a lot of time. This is a mass disaster,” Stuelpnagel said.

A series of makeshift crosses have been erected and attached to the fence line above the Lahaina Bypass at Lahainaluna Road to memorialize those who lost their lives in the deadliest fire in recent US history (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Many remains were extremely fragmented, Stuelpnagel said. Some were commingled because victims likely tried to catch rides with others fleeing the fire, ran into other people’s homes or were otherwise in places they normally wouldn’t be.  

Anthropologists are assisting the identification process to “reunify these remains and make sure we have who we think we have and they are as complete as they can be,” he said.

Sixteen sets of remains that turned out to be non-human, presumably pets or other animals, were also recovered.

In response to questions from reporters about the conflicting death toll numbers, Pelletier said there have been many moving parts, including “a whole bunch of data sources that poured in.”

Various agencies were initially involved in process of collecting human remains. Body bags with different labels on them came into the morgue, adding to a lack of clarity. Some bags contained remains from more than one person.

Officials also stressed that 97 is not the final count.

“We’re not there yet,” said John Byrd, laboratory director with Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Fire devastation is visible just below the Lahaina Bypass. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

So far, 74 individuals who died in the fire have been positively identified, Pelletier said. Fifty sets of human remains have been returned to next of kin. DNA profiles on 95 individuals exist and “we’re constantly striving to make sure we do this to the best of our ability,” the police chief said.

“We’re looking at all the data points we can to make this the best, most concrete investigation and process we have,” Pelletier said.

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

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