The Maui Police Department announced Friday the death toll from the destructive Maui fire dropped to 97, a significant change from the 115 believed dead that Maui County medical examiner Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel attributed to instances where officials initially believed remains belonged to two people instead of just one.
Dr. Stuelpnagel explained in a news conference that some remains from the fire, many of which are mere bones and fragments, were identified as belonging to two separate people before further DNA analysis found some remains actually belonged to a single individual.
Officials are heavily depending on DNA analysis to identify the dead because the intense temperatures of the raging fires left little behind. Stuelpnagel emphasized forensic anthropologists combed through data multiple times before updating the death toll, which Stuelpnagel noted was a “fluid number.”
Animal remains were collected with human remains in some instances, the Associated Press reported, causing further confusion.
The number of people that remain unaccounted for after the fire is 31—a number that has also changed dramatically, having once been as large as 1,000—according to the MPD and the FBI.
The updated death toll doesn’t change the Maui blaze’s status as the fifth-deadliest fire in U.S. history.
The Maui fire, which was made up of four blazes on the island, started on August 8, with the most destructive fire in the historic town of Lahaina suffering from more than 2,000 acres of burned land. By August 19, the fire’s death toll reached 114 as the island neared 100% containment of multiple fires. The process of identifying the dead with DNA tests was something officials estimated would take weeks to months. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CBS last month a major concern of successfully recovering remains was rooted in the temperature of the fire, adding “there are going to be people that are lost forever.” DNA analysis is also made more difficult by the fact that in most cases, one or more family members need to submit cheek swab tests for victims to be identified, according to the Washington Post, which reported more than two weeks ago that only 104 DNA submissions were received by Maui authorities.
Several lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath of the fire, targeting entities such as Maui County, the State of Hawaii and Hawaiian Electric, the latter of which has been sued by the county and multiple residents accusing the power company of negligence and reckless operation of their infrastructure. More than 10 lawsuits have been filed against the company, which serves 95% of Hawaii’s approximate 1.4 million residents.
Maui County And State Of Hawaii Sued Over Maui Fire In First Suit To Blame The Government (Forbes)
Hawaii officials say DNA tests drop Maui fire death count to 97 (Associated Press)