BY JENNIFER KELLEHER AND REBECCA BOONE
WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — Authorities in Hawaii have adjusted the number of deaths from the deadly Maui wildfires down to at least 97 people.
Previously officials said they believed at least 115 people had died in the fires, but further testing showed they had multiple DNA samples from some of those who died. The number of those who were 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 press conference Friday afternoon that the current number of dead should be considered a minimum, because it’s possible that toll could rise.
Determining the death toll from the Aug. 8 wildfires 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.
The Lahaina fire is the deadliest in the U.S. 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 Aug. 8 blaze reduced much of the historic town to ash.
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.
“We look at body bags that come in and we do an initial inventory and we assess how many people are represented there,” he said. “When you do the first tally of all those that have come in, the number tends to be too high because as you begin to do more analysis and examination you realize that actually you’ve got two bags that were the same person or you have two bags that were the same two people but you didn’t realize that.”
“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.
Authorities expressed relief at having a better grasp on the number of dead and those still unaccounted for in the Aug. 8 blaze.
“For the very first time … we legitimately have a chance to identify every single person we lost and to reunite them with their family,” Pelletier said. “And so in the midst of all this tragedy, there’s a little ray of hope right there and so that really is incredible.”