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Maui officials face questions over wildfires response as search for victims wraps up

Maui officials questioned over wildfire response
Maui officials face questions over wildfire response 02:18

As flames ripped through Maui's historic town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, in what would become the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century, desperation was everywhere.

Social media showed the fire and people running for their lives, and yet Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen would not say what he was doing as the flames spread. 

"I'm not going to speak to social media," he told CBS News. "I wasn't on social media. We didn't have time for that." 

And yet, Bissen wouldn't say what he was doing. It was the mayor's job to ask the state for emergency backup. But in a tense back-and-forth with CBS News national correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti, Bissen said he did not place a single call in the hours during and long after the fire.

"Mayor Bissen, you are the highest ranking official here on the island. If the buck stops with your office, how is that possible?" Vigliotti asked.

"I can't speak to what — or whose responsibility it was to communicate directly," Bissen responded. "I can't say who was responsible for communicating with General Hara."

Major General Kenneth Hara, the director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said in a recent interview with Hawaii News Now that he was initially unaware of crucial details about the fire. "I thought everyone had gotten out safely," he said. "It wasn't until probably the next day I started hearing about fatalities."

"I thought everyone had gotten out safely," he said. "It wasn't until probably the next day I started hearing about fatalities."

But Hara also wouldn't clarify exactly where he was as the fire was gaining strength, telling CBS News he doesn't think he "could have done anything about [the deaths]."

"That fire was so rapid, and by the time everyone had situational awareness, it was too late," he said.

But there are renewed questions about if it was too late. Many victims ran into the ocean to escape the flames, and some weren't rescued until the morning.

In the days following the firestorm, thousands of people, including tourists and residents, were stranded without power, running water, food or access to medical aid.

The official death toll as of Wednesday stood at 115, but an unknown number of people were still missing on Maui. The number of unaccounted for reached as high as 1,100, according to an FBI assessment.

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