Two weeks after the devastating Maui fire ravaged the community of Lahaina and became the deadliest fire in U.S. history, law enforcement must now face the arduous challenge of accounting for hundreds and possibly thousands of missing people.
Hawaii authorities must now determine how many among the 500 to 1,000 unaccounted for individuals have perished and how many may have escaped the fire but remain uncontacted.
As of the most recent update on August 22, 115 confirmed deaths have been reported.
However, the number of missing individuals has raised significant hurdles for officials attempting to assess the true extent of the tragedy.
The situation echoes a similar one that unfolded in 2018 after a wildfire claimed 85 lives and razed Paradise, California.
In that case, Butte County authorities collaborated with the local newspaper to publish a list of the missing, resulting in a substantial reduction from 1,300 names to just a handful within a month.
In contrast, Maui authorities have chosen not to make their list of missing individuals public.
Adam Weintraub, spokesperson for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, cited uncertainties about privacy rules and concerns over potentially traumatizing families as reasons for their decision.
A Maui County spokesperson confirmed to the AP that the identities of missing individuals would be kept private.
“The names of, and any information related to the missing individuals, will not be published or be made publicly available at this time,” the spokesperson said.
Addressing the discrepancy in reported missing individuals, Hawaii Governor Josh Green estimated over 1,000, while Maui Mayor Richard Bissen mentioned 850.
White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall stated that the count likely ranges from 500 to 800.
Families and residents affected by the disaster are becoming increasingly frustrated as the search for their loved ones extends further.
Questions have also arisen regarding the pace at which the names of the deceased are being made public, even after family notifications.
The American Red Cross has also been involved in efforts to locate missing individuals, generating its own list separate from law enforcement.
The volunteers have cross-checked names with emergency shelter registration records, contacted hospitals and scoured social media platforms in their efforts.
As of now, they have successfully completed about 2,400 out of over 3,000 requests for reunification or welfare updates.
Identifying human remains after such a catastrophic event is a lengthy and challenging process, according to experts.
Because some bodies may have been cremated, traditional identification methods like DNA testing can be difficult.
Vyto Babrauskas, president of fire safety research consulting firm Fire Science and Technology Inc., explained: “If you go to the extreme of things — if turned to ash — you’re not going to be able to identify anything.”
The extreme nature of the disaster, including debris removal and excavation, further complicates recovery efforts.
Reflecting on similar incidents, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea shared his experience from the Paradise wildfire.
According to Honea, he had a team of 10-15 detectives working tirelessly to narrow down the list of missing individuals, employing traditional detective techniques combined with visits to last known residences and reaching out via various communication platforms.
“We had this Excel spreadsheet with the people’s names and any of the different information we had,” he said. “We’d then start working the cases similar to the way you work any other case to try to locate somebody.”
As the situation on Maui continues to unfold rapidly, those who have endured similar tragedies are watching closely, empathizing with the victims and their families.
Nearly 22 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives, almost 1,100 victims remain without identified remains.
Some families, like that of Joseph Giaccone, have chosen to focus on cherished memories rather than pursuing potentially painful identifications.
“It would just reinforce the horror that his person endured that day, and it would open wounds that I don’t think I want to open,” Giaccone said.