The authorities announced on Friday that they currently believe 97 people died in the Maui wildfire instead of the 115 fatalities they had been reporting for weeks, a surprising development after initial fears that many more lives had been lost in the disaster.
Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel, the medical examiner for Maui County, said in a news conference that the process of confirming dead victims and identifying them through DNA analysis had been difficult and changing ever since the fire on Aug. 8 that destroyed most of Lahaina.
It is the first time that the Maui death toll has dropped. In some instances, Dr. Stuelpnagel explained, forensic examiners have determined that they had multiple sets of remains for the same person. He also said that 16 of the remains that investigators had received were nonhuman.
“It’s good news to have a lower number, that’s for darn sure,” Dr. Stuelpnagel said on Friday.
For more than three weeks, officials said that at least 115 people died, a number that held firm even as hundreds were said to be missing and investigators kept combing through the ruins of central Lahaina.
Hawaii leaders and residents initially expressed fears that hundreds might have died in the fast-moving blaze that left victims trapped in vehicles as they were on clogged roads trying to escape. At one point, thousands were said to be missing.
But the number of people unaccounted for has now fallen to 31, John Pelletier, the chief of the Maui Police Department, said on Friday. After publishing multiple versions of lists with names of people thought to be missing, the authorities have located most of the individuals.
Identifying the dead has been a massive undertaking that has drawn out for more than a month, requiring DNA samples from family, dental experts and dealing with remains that are burned beyond recognition.
Dr. Stuelpnagel said there were cases where they had the remains of someone, but later found bones with the same DNA.
He also said there were 16 cases that were nonhuman, “mixed in with the other people who have come through, so there’s lots and lots of moving bits of information in this situation.”
He added: “We’re even looking at surgical hardware, pacemakers, pacemaker serial numbers. We’re trying every single modality we have to make sure that we identify these people. It does take a lot of time.”
Such ambiguity is similar to that of what happens during war, where it’s not clear how many have died, said John Byrd, a forensics laboratory director with the Department of Defense. Different entities collecting remains adds to the confusion.
“As you begin to do more analysis and examination, you realize that actually you got two bags that were the same person,” he said.