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Maui's number of people not accounted for after fires rises back above 1,000

FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill says the number of unaccounted-for people could continue to fluctuate.
Maui County, via Facebook / Screenshot by NPR
FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill says the number of unaccounted-for people could continue to fluctuate.

MAUI, Hawaii — The number of people on the unaccounted for list from the Maui fires now has "between 1,000 and 1,100" names on it, FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill said at a news conference Tuesday.

That's more than Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen shared on Sunday night, when he said 850 names were on the list. In the latest update, police also cautioned that it's likely some people's fates might never be known.

The data is complex and fluctuating, the FBI says

"I know it is confusing, because the numbers do change," Merrill said, as Bissen and other officials looked on. He attributed the fluctuation to the wide range of information coming from individuals and institutions.

The effort to nail down an authoritative list is complicated by two main factors, Merrill said: the lack of detail in some reports; and the sheer variety of lists of unaccounted-for people.

"Some of the information is highly ambiguous," he said, adding that some reports omit either a first or a last name, or lack a date of birth for the person in question.

It's also possible that some people might appear on multiple lists. The FBI is working to consolidate information from the Maui Police Department, the Red Cross, and emergency agencies, Merrill said, along with lists compiled by shelters and the Family Assistance Center, which is helping administer DNA swabs to family members for identification purposes.

Together, those lists add up around 2,500 people.

"That doesn't mean that there's 2,500 people missing," the agent said. "That just means we have 2,500 records that we've had to go through and try to get to the bottom of it."

Around 1,400 people have been accounted for, Merrill said.

"That leaves, however, about 1,000 people," he added. "We're making tremendous progress, but no one on this stage will be happy, including myself, until we get that list as far as we can go."

As analysts cross-reference the information, Merrill said, "We may in fact – and I expect this to happen – every day the numbers will change."

Officials encourage families to submit DNA swabs

Authorities have identified 43 of the 115 people who are known so far to have died, the Maui Police Department said on Tuesday. Just under half of that number — 21 families — have been located and formally notified of their loss, two weeks after wildfires ripped through Lahaina and other areas of Maui.

Parents, siblings, and children of people whose whereabouts are still unknown are being encouraged to give DNA samples to help identification efforts.

"The total number of family-reference [DNA] samples that have been collected thus far is 104," said Julie French, a senior vice president at the DNA analysis company ANDE who is leading the testing program.

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

Andrew Martin, Maui's prosecuting attorney who is heading up the Family Assistance Center, says that compared to other disasters, the number of people who have provided DNA samples is low. "As to why that is, I can only speculate," he said. "Part of coming up here today is, I want to make sure that we reassure people that by coming in and providing a DNA sample, the only purpose for which it will be used is helping to identify the unaccounted for."

People on Maui can go to a family assistance center to provide a sample. Relatives who live on other islands or the continental U.S. can call the FBI at (808) 566-4300 or send an email to HN-COMMAND-POST@ic.fbi.gov for guidance about providing a sample.

Not everyone will likely be accounted for, chief says

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier acknowledged that they may not find all of those who died in the fire. He also noted that in some cases, recovery teams are retrieving ash, rather than entire bodies, of those who died.

"When this is all said and done, realistically, let's be honest here, we're going to have a number of confirmed, we're going to have a number of presumed," he said.

Pelletier called for patience as the work continues, warning, "it may take a while."

The number of people whose whereabouts and safety remain an open question has fluctuated despite crews having completed search operations in "100% of the single-story, residential properties" in the disaster area, as Maui County announced on Monday.

Searchers have now begun to focus on locations holding multi-story residential and commercial properties.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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