Lahaina, Hawaii — Two weeks after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century swept through the Maui community of Lahaina, authorities say anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people remain unaccounted for — a staggering number for officials facing huge challenges to determine how many of those perished and how many may have made it to safety but haven’t checked in.
Something similar happened after a wildfire in 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Authorities in Butte County, home to Paradise, ultimately published a list of the missing in the local newspaper, a decision that helped identify scores of people who had made it out alive but were listed as missing. Within a month, the list dropped from 1,300 names to only a dozen.
Hawaii officials have expressed concern that by releasing a list of the missing, they would also be identifying some people who have died. In an email Tuesday, the State Joint Information Center called it “a standard held by all law enforcement and first responders here in Hawaii, out of compassion and courtesy for the families, to withhold the names until the families can be contacted.”
As of Monday, there were 115 people confirmed dead, according to Maui police. All single-story, residential properties in the disaster area had been searched, and teams were beginning to search multistory residential and commercial properties, Maui County officials said in an update late Monday.
There are widely varying accounts of the tally of the missing. Hawaii Governor Josh Green said Sunday that more than 1,000 remained unaccounted for. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a recorded video on Instagram that the number was 850. And during President Joe Biden’s tour of the devastation on Monday, White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall put it between 500 and 800.
An unofficial, crowd-sourced spreadsheet of missing people posted online listed nearly 700 names as of Tuesday.
State Senator Gilbert Keith-Agaran, representing central Maui, said he’s not aware of any rules that prevent officials from making the list public. But as someone with several members of his extended family still unaccounted for, he understands why some may not want the list released.
“I’m not going to second-guess the approach by the mayor and his people right now,” he said.
Questions are also emerging about how quickly the names of the dead are being publicly released, even after family members have been notified. Maui residents are growing increasingly frustrated as the search for their loved ones drags on.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Tuesday that the Maui Police Department has instructed the medical examiner in Honolulu — where some burn patients were taken for treatment — not to release the names of anyone who dies from injuries sustained in Lahaina fire. The request came after one severely burned patient died and the man’s name appeared in media reports after notification of his next of kin.
“I don’t know why they aren’t releasing the names,” Honolulu Department of the Medical Examiner Supervising Investigator Theresa Reynolds told the newspaper.
Clifford Abihai said he feels like he’s getting the run-around from authorities. He came to Maui from California to try to find answers about his grandmother, Louise Abihai, 98. He has been just as frustrated on the ground in Maui.
“I just want confirmation,” he said last week. “Not knowing what happened, not knowing if she escaped, not knowing if she’s not there. That’s the hard thing.”
As of Tuesday, he said he had learned nothing further.
His grandmother lived at Hale Mahaolu Eono, a senior living facility where another member of his extended family, Virginia Dofa, lived. Authorities have identified Dofa as among the dead. Abihai described Dofa and Louise Abihai as best friends.
He said his grandmother was mobile and could walk a mile a day, but it was often hard to reach her because she’d frequently turn off her cellphone to save battery power.
Confirming whether those who are unaccounted for are deceased can be difficult. Fire experts say it’s possible some bodies were cremated in the Lahaina fire, potentially leaving no bones to identify through DNA tests.
The situation on Maui is evolving, but those who lived through similar tragedies and never learned of their loved ones’ fate are also following the news and hurt for the victims and their families.
Nearly 22 years later, almost 1,100 victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, which killed nearly 3,000, have no identified remains.
Joseph Giaccone’s family initially was desperate for any physical trace of the 43-year-old finance executive, who worked in the World Trade Center’s North Tower, brother James Giaccone recalled. But over time, he started focusing instead on memories of the flourishing man his brother was.
“So I am OK with the way it is right now,” he said.