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Death toll from Maui fire at 106 as county begins identifying victims

The governor warned that scores more bodies could be found.
Charred vehicles sit near a wildfire-destroyed home
Posted at 7:20 AM, Aug 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-16 07:20:11-04

Federal officials sent a mobile morgue with coroners, pathologists and technicians to Hawaii to help identify the dead, as Maui County released the first names of people killed in the wildfire that all but incinerated the historic town of Lahaina a week ago and killed at least 106 people.

A week after the fires started, some residents still had with intermittent power, unreliable cellphone service and uncertainty over where to get assistance.

Some people walked periodically to a seawall, where phone connections were strongest, to make calls. Flying low off the coast, a single-prop airplane used a loudspeaker to blare information about where to get water and supplies.

Just two victims have been named so far, while the county said it has identified three more and will release the names after notifying the next of kin.

"It's going to be a very, very difficult mission," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary Jonathan Greene said. "And patience will be incredibly important because of the number of victims."

A portable morgue unit arrived Tuesday morning with more than 22 tons of supplies and equipment needed for victim identification and processing remains, such as mortuary examination tables and X-ray units.

Crews using cadaver dogs have scoured about 32% of the area, the County of Maui said in a statement Tuesday. The governor asked for patience as authorities became overwhelmed with requests to visit the burn area.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier renewed an appeal for families with missing relatives to provide DNA samples. So far 41 samples have been submitted, the county statement said, and 13 DNA profiles have been obtained from remains.

The governor warned that scores more bodies could be found. The wildfires, some of which have not yet been fully contained, are already the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century.

Lawsuits allege Maui's power lines contributed to its fires
Stills from video shot by residents shows power lines during fires on Maui in Hawaii

Lawsuits allege Maui's power lines contributed to its fires

High winds brought down live power-lines, which then ignited fires, according to claims in new lawsuits against Hawaiian Electric Company.

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When asked by Hawaii News Now if children are among the missing, Governor Josh Green said Tuesday: "Tragically, yes. ... When the bodies are smaller, we know it's a child."

He described some of the sites being searched as "too much to share or see from just a human perspective."

Another complicating factor, Green said, is that storms with rain and high winds were forecast for the weekend. Officials are mulling whether to "preemptively power down or not for a short period of time, because right now all of the infrastructure is weaker."

The local power utility has already faced criticism for not shutting off power as strong winds buffeted a parched area under high risk for fire. It's not clear whether the utility's equipment played any role in igniting the flames.

Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. President and CEO Shelee Kimura said many factors go into a decision to cut power, including the impact on people who rely on specialized medical equipment and concerns that a shutoff in the fire area would have knocked out water pumps.

Green has said the flames raced as fast as a mile (1.6 kilometers) every minute in one area, fueled by dry grass and propelled by strong winds from a passing hurricane.

The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85% contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire was 75% contained as of Tuesday evening.

The Lahaina fire caused about $3.2 billion in insured property losses, according to calculations by Karen Clark & Company, a prominent disaster and risk modeling company. That doesn't count damage to uninsured property. The firm said more than 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed by flames, with about 3,000 damaged by fire or smoke or both.

Even where the flames have retreated, authorities have warned that toxic byproducts may remain, including in drinking water, after the flames spewed poisonous fumes. That has left many unable to return home.

Victoria Martocci, who lost her scuba business and a boat, planned to travel to her storage unit in Kahalui from her Kahana home Wednesday to stash documents and keepsakes given to her by a friend whose house burned. "These are things she grabbed, the only things she could grab, and I want to keep them safe for her," Martocci said.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit Hawaii "as soon as we can" but he doesn't want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts. During a stop in Milwaukee to highlight his economic agenda, President Biden pledged that "every asset they need will be there for them."

The two victims identified were Lahaina residents Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79.

Lahaina resident Kekoa Lansford helped rescue people as the flames swept through town. Now he is collecting stories from survivors, hoping to create a timeline of what happened. He has 170 emails so far.

The scene was haunting. "Horrible, horrible," Lansford said Tuesday. "You ever seen hell in the movies? That is what it looked like. Fire everywhere. Dead people."