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Number of people missing in Maui wildfires still unclear, officials say

Mayor facing criticism over Maui fires response
Maui County mayor facing new criticism over wildfires response 02:04

Exactly two weeks after a wildfire ripped through the historic Maui city of Lahaina, officials on Tuesday said that the number of people unaccounted for in the blaze continues to fluctuate due to uncertain and incomplete data. At least 115 people have been killed in the fire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

In a news briefing Tuesday afternoon, Steven Merrill, special agent in charge of the FBI's Honolulu division, said that the number of people "reported unaccounted for" is between 1,000 and 1,100.

"Whether it be someone who just gave a first name, 'Chris is missing,' or someone that gave very extensive and specific information," Merrill clarified.

This latest estimate comes one day after Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said that the number of missing was believed to be at around 850.

"We don't want to leave any stone unturned, so we're considering everybody on that list until we can prove that they're not on that list," Merrill said, emphasizing the number will change as new information continues to come in.

Lahaina fire maui
Search and recovery team members check charred buildings and cars in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 18, 2023.  YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

"There may be a shelter out there, for example, a hotel out there, that hasn't reported people," he said.

Officials were unable to confirm how many of the missing are children. Merrill disclosed that no one on their missing persons lists has a child's birthdate. 

"That doesn't mean...there are not minor victims," Merrill said. "...On all of our lists, we don't have any names, currently, that show a date of birth of someone who is a child," Merrill said. 

He also noted that about 1,400 of the 2,500 people who were initially reported missing have been so far found safe. 

For days, hundreds of search and rescue crews and dozens of cadaver dogs have been canvassing the burn area for human remains. The FBI has evidence collection personnel, forensic science experts and cell phone analysts on the ground in Maui assisting in the identification process, Merrill said. 

Familial DNA is being used to help identify victims. At least 104 DNA reference samples have been collected so far from people on the island in an effort to "construct family trees, or pedigrees," Julie French, senior vice president for the DNA analysis company ANDE, told reporters.

"Nearly three-quarters of the remains that have been tested thus far have generated searchable DNA results," French said.

Maui Prosecuting Attorney Andy Martin said DNA analysis was being solely conducted by ANDE, not the FBI or any other local government agencies, and that the samples collected were only being used for the purpose of identifying victims.

As of Tuesday evening, 43 people have been identified, county officials said. Of those, eight names have been publicly released, ranging in age from 59 to 74. 

Meanwhile, there were fresh questions over how aware Maui County officials were of the conditions on the ground Aug. 8 as the Lahaina fire was breaking out. This because of an interview Mayor Richard Bissen gave to local station KITV-TV, just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 8.

"I'm happy to report the road is open to and from Lahaina," Bissen told KITV at the time.

However, Bissen was seemingly unaware that, at that point, much of downtown Lahaina was already ablaze, with thousands of people trying to flee the flames which destroyed about 80% of the city.  

When asked about the timeframe of that specific interview Tuesday, Bissen responded that "we had lots of information coming in, we had lots of communication that was broken down."

As the fire situation was unfolding, Bissen said, he was being briefed through the emergency operations center, with most of that information coming from the fire department.

The mayor disclosed that he "wasn't aware…until later" that Maui County police officers had allegedly gone door-to-door in Lahaina at the time of the fire "making personal pleas…knocking on doors" and using speakers to ask people to evacuate.

"I can't tell you what contributed to what," Bissen said.

Last week, the chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned after being roundly criticized for not activating the island's warning sirens as the Lahaina fire was spreading.

One day before quitting, when asked by reporters if he regretted not activating the sirens, Herman Andaya responded, "I do not."

The cause of the wildfires remains under investigation. Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez also announced last week that she will bring in a "third-party private organization" to assess the response of local government agencies to the fires. 

The Lahaina fire, one of four wildfires which broke out Aug. 8 on the island, burned about 3.39 square miles. It destroyed at least 2,200 structures, according to estimates, about 86% of which were residential. It was 90% contained as of Monday. 

The four fires have burned a combined estimate of 10 square miles. On Monday, President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden traveled to Maui to tour the disaster zone. 

Jonathan Vigliotti and Caitlin O'Kane contributed to this report. 

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