After DNA Tests, Maui Death Toll Drops to 97

People died huddled together, coroner says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 18, 2023 3:01 PM CDT
After DNA Tests, Maui Death Toll Drops to 97
Defense POW/MIA Account Agency Laboratory Director John Byrd, left, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, center, and Maui County Physician's Coroner Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel are seen during a press conference in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Friday Sept. 15, 2023.   (AP Photo/ Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)

Authorities in Hawaii have adjusted the number of deaths from the deadly Maui wildfire down to at least 97 people. Officials previously said they believed at least 115 people had died in the fire, but further testing showed they had multiple DNA samples from some of the victims. The number of those who are missing also fell from 41 to 31, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said. John Byrd, laboratory director with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said during a news conference Friday afternoon that the current number of dead should be considered a minimum, because it's possible that toll could rise, the AP reports.

Determining the death toll from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina has been especially complicated because of the damage caused by the fire and the chaos as people tried to escape, officials said. In some cases, animal remains were inadvertently collected along with human remains. So far, 74 of the deceased have been positively identified, Pelletier said. The Lahaina fire is the deadliest wildfire in the US in more than a century. Caught in a hellscape , some residents died in their cars, while others jumped into the ocean or tried to run for safety. The blaze reduced much of the historic town to ash.

"When the fire broke out, people ran together, they huddled together," said Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, Maui County physician's coroner. "They're holding each other in those moments. Some of them were even holding pets." Because of this, some remains arrived commingled. Byrd said the initial death tally was too high for several reasons, adding that the lower tally now was the "normal and natural" progression of the long-term forensics investigation. "The numbers start a little too high on the morgue side and eventually settles until at some point it's going to be a final accurate number. I would say we're not quite there yet," Byrd said.

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Stuelpnagel said people working on the identification process are trying to "reunify people to have them as whole as they're able to be," before the remains are returned to their loved ones. The work to reunite fire victims with families involves more than just DNA tests, officials said. Anthropologists are assisting, and officials are gathering clues from dental work and medical devices like pacemakers when possible.

(More Hawaii wildfires stories.)

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