2 weeks after Maui fires, number of unaccounted for remains elusive with officials pleading for DNA

Maui officials are pleading with survivors to submit DNA evidence to help identity fire victims. Officials say the current estimate of missing is around 1,100 after multiple lists were combined. With missing information, it's unclear how many children are on the list.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – How many children are among the Maui wildfire victims and how many people are still unaccounted for are the most significant questions two weeks after the deadly fires destroyed the town of Lahaina.

Hawaii officials, the FBI Honolulu office and DNA experts provided an update Tuesday on the search for remains and how they determine the number of missing people after the brush fires.

The brush fires broke out on Aug. 8, fueled by 70 mph winds, pushing flames at highway speeds. The fires destroyed about 2,200 homes and displaced an estimated 4,500 people. 

Cadaver dogs and search teams have found the remains of 115 people after searching 100% of the single-story residential homes in Lahaina, according to Maui County. Of those, only 22 have been identified. As search teams find remains, they mark GPS coordinates for where the victim was found, said Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier.

A day after Maui Mayor Richard Bissen posted a video saying about 850 remained on the unaccounted-for list, the number again returned to nearly 1,100 people, according to the FBI and Maui police.

Pelletier said soon after the fires, he enlisted the help of the FBI Honolulu office because of the resources needed to search an entire town burned to the ground. 

Pelletier said Maui police plan to release the official list but declined to provide a date or time when that would happen. 

FBI Honolulu Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill said the FBI has been working to combine the missing person lists from the American Red Cross, FEMA, the Family Assistance Center and the Maui Police Department. Many of these lists do not include all the information needed for a missing person.  

"For instance, we have information about a first or last name, but not both," Merrill said. "This makes it very difficult for us to identify who that person may be."

‘Many’ children expected to be among victims

How many children are among the missing is also unknown. The fires broke out during a school day, separating families. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green previously said he expected "many" children to be among the fire victims.


"I would like to say there is none," Pelletier said. "I don't know the answer because we're not recovering whole bodies. We're picking up ash. Some of it's crumbling."

Merrill said they don't have a date of birth or information on the missing list to "know whether that person was a minor or an adult or anything."

The FBI and Maui police are asking people on the island with missing loved ones to call either the FBI Honolulu hotline at 808-566-4300 or the Maui police. People on the mainland can reach out to the FBI at 808-566-4300 or email HN-COMMAND-POST@ic.fbi.gov, to coordinate DNA collection and submit information about a missing person. 

Officials need information including the first and last name, date of birth, what the person looked like and any living relatives. 

Officials: DNA submitted to identify remains won't be used for anything else

More than anything, Maui officials are begging the public to come forward and supply DNA to help identify the fire victims. 

Julie French, with ANDE Rapid DNA, said nearly 75% of the remains found have been tested for and generated DNA results. 

"Our plea, to encourage people to come to the Family Assistance Center, is really impactful for our testing because we don't want to end up in a situation where we've generated results from remains that have come in from the disaster, but we don't have anyone to search against them," French said, adding multiple samples from a family are the most helpful. 


Andrew Martin manages the Family Assistance Center at the Hyatt Regency in Ka'anapali and said the process to submit a DNA sample is quick, and the family can provide information about their family member at the center. Martin said the number of family members coming in to provide DNA samples has been "a lot lower than they've seen in other disasters."

French said 104 DNA samples have been submitted in the two weeks since the fires.

Martin pleaded with the public to come in and submit a sample, adding there are no strings attached to submitting DNA.

"It's not going to be used for any type of or entered into any criminal justice database," Martin said. "It's not going to be retained by any criminal justice agency. No one who comes to the Family Assistance Center is going to be asked whether or not they're a United States citizen. What we want to do, all we want to do is help people and identify their unaccounted for loved ones."

Maui County issued a warning to residents on Wednesday about scammers targeting community members claiming to be part of "DNA Services."

"These telephone calls are scams, and anyone receiving them should hang up immediately and report them to the Maui Police Department’s non-emergency number at 808-244-6400," Maui County officials said.

Currently, the Family Assistance Center at Hyatt Regency’s Monarchy Ballroom in Kā'anapali is the only location in Maui taking DNA samples to help identify remains.