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After Maui County releases names of 388 people unaccounted for, over 100 reported safe

Maui County officials released the names late Thursday of 388 people unaccounted for since the decimating Aug. 8 wildfires, the first such list to be issued. 

However, within a day of its release, more than 100 of those on the list or their relatives came forward to say they're safe, the FBI said Friday.

Officials told CBS News that it doesn't necessarily mean that those 100-plus have been removed from the list, because that new information still needs to be vetted and confirmed.  

"We're very thankful for the people who have reached out by phone or email," Steven Merrill, the FBI's special agent in charge in Honolulu, said in a news conference. "As we get someone off of a list, this has enabled us to devote more resources to those who are still on the list."

An FBI official said Thursday in a statement that the list "is only those who have been validated by having been reported as unaccounted for. They were only deemed validated as long as the following criteria was provided: First and last name as well as a verified contact number for the person who reported the individual as unaccounted for."

The 388 names represented a portion of a broader list of up to 1,100 people reported missing that the FBI said earlier this week it was working to validate. 

At least 115 people have died in the Lahaina fire, but the death toll is expected to rise. Maui County has so far identified 45 of the victims, officials said Friday. On Thursday, 7-year-old Tony Takafua was confirmed as the first child victim of the wildfire. Takafua's remains, along with the remains of three of his relatives, were found in a burned car near their home, including his mother Salote Tone, 39; and his grandparents Faaoso Tone, 70, and Maluifonua Tone, 73.

Officials have expressed concern that many of the victims are children.

Meanwhile, in Friday's news conference, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen announced that Darryl Oliveira has been named as the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, about a week after its previous chief, Herman Andaya, resigned amid criticism for his agency's response to the fire that destroyed nearly the entire historic town of Lahaina.

Oliveira is the former Hawaii Fire Department chief and also served as the head of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency.

"I am here to support the mayor, and his team, work with all the agencies, the community, and to help things move forward and progress so that Maui can recover as quickly and effectively as possible," Oliveira said Friday.

Andaya resigned Aug. 17, just one day after he publicly defended his controversial decision not to activate the island's warning sirens when the Lahaina wildfire was spreading.

Andaya argued that sounding the sirens could have created confusion by sending Lahaina residents into the path of the blaze because they may have thought the sirens were signaling a tsunami, not a wildfire.

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded," Andaya said.

"Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside), and if that was the case, they would have gone into the fire," he added. 

Maui County Thursday also said it had sued Hawaiian Electric Company over the fires, saying the utility negligently failed to shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions.

FILE PHOTO: Workers repair utility lines in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina
workers repair utility lines after a wildfire ravaged the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, on August 15, 2023. MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS

Witness accounts and video indicated that sparks from power lines ignited fires as utility poles snapped in the winds, which were driven by a hurricane passing far to the south. The Aug. 8 fires killed at least 115 people, making them the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century, and officials have said the toll is almost certain to rise.

Hawaii Electric said in a statement it is "very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding."

The lawsuit said the destruction could have been avoided and that the utility had a duty "to properly maintain and repair the electric transmission lines, and other equipment including utility poles associated with their transmission of electricity, and to keep vegetation properly trimmed and maintained so as to prevent contact with overhead power lines and other electric equipment."

The utility knew that high winds "would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation," the lawsuit said. "Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate."

FILE PHOTO: Maui children face grief, destruction as schools start up after wildfire
Views from the air show on Lahaina on August 10, 2023 Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town on the island of Maui in Hawaii several days earlier. MARCO GARCIA / REUTERS

A drought in the region had left plants, including invasive grasses, dangerously dry. As Hurricane Dora passed roughly 500 miles south of Hawaii, strong winds toppled at least 30 power poles in West Maui. Video shot by a Lahaina resident shows a downed power line setting dry grasses alight. Firefighters initially contained that fire but then left to attend to other calls, and residents said the fire later reignited and raced toward downtown Lahaina.

With downed power lines and police or utility crews blocking some roads, traffic ground to a standstill along Lahaina's Front Street. A number of residents jumped into the water off Maui as they tried to escape the flaming debris and overheated black smoke enveloping downtown.

Dozens of searchers in snorkel gear this week have been combing a 4-mile stretch of water for signs of anyone who might have perished. Crews are also painstakingly searching for remains among the ashes of destroyed businesses and multistory residential buildings.

"Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County," Hawaiian Electric's statement said.

Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii's electric customers. It is also facing several lawsuits from Lahaina residents as well as one from some of its own investors, who accused it of fraud in a federal lawsuit Thursday, saying it failed to disclose that its wildfire prevention and safety measures were inadequate.

Maui County's lawsuit notes other utilities, such as Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric have procedures for shutting off power during bad windstorms and said the "severe and catastrophic losses ... could have easily been prevented" if Hawaiian Electric had a similar shutoff plan.

The county said it is seeking compensation for damage to public property and resources in Lahaina as well as nearby Kula.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit, Maui County officials said the wildfires destroyed more than 2,200 structures and caused at least $5.5 billion in damage.

Other utilities have been found liable for devastating fires recently.

In June, a jury in Oregon found the electric utility PacifiCorp responsible for causing devastating fires during Labor Day weekend in 2020, ordering the company to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and finding it liable for broader damages that could push the total award into the billions.

Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after its neglected equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings and virtually razed the town of Paradise, California

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