Within hours of Maui County releasing 388 names of people unaccounted for following the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, some cases were already being resolved on Friday as relatives or the people themselves reported they were safe.
Three people on the list told The Associated Press they are alive, well and confused or frustrated to be on it. At least two others were among the victims of the fire — people who are known to have perished but have not yet been positively identified as deceased in the official tally, which currently stands at 115.
Terri Thomas was killed when fire overtook her car as she fled from her apartment with her two dogs and two friends, said her cousin, Tammy Cruz, of Columbus, Ga. The car became stuck in traffic and only one of the friends escaped. He later told Cruz that Thomas was crying hysterically when he last saw her, the car growing hotter by the second.
Thomas’s niece provided a DNA swab to help identify her remains, Cruz said Friday, but the family hasn’t received notification of her death.
“Her dogs were her world to her,” Cruz said. “I knew she wouldn’t have left her dogs.”
The 388 names represented a portion of a broader list of up to 1,100 people reported missing that the FBI said earlier this week it was working to validate. Maui County said the newly published list included those for whom it had first and last names, as well as verified contact information for a person who reported them missing.
“Once those names come out, it can and will cause pain for folks whose loved ones are listed,” police Chief John Pelletier said in a statement as they were released late Thursday. “This is not an easy thing to do, but we want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make this investigation as complete and thorough as possible.”
Officials asked anyone who knows someone on the list to contact authorities.
County and police officials did not immediately provide information about how many cases had been resolved since the list’s publication, but it appeared to be helping winnow the number down. Commenters on Facebook reported that they knew of more than two dozen people who were alive and safe.
‘I would love to be taken off the list’
Heidi Mazur, of Lahaina, told AP she was frustrated to be on the list when she has been active on Facebook and started an online fundraiser after the fire.
“They will find me in a New York minute if I don’t pay my car registration or taxes, but they can’t seem to locate me in a disaster here in Lahaina!” she said via Facebook Messenger.
MalamaKai Watson, 40, was not in Lahaina the day of the fires but on the other side of the island. Given the poor state of communications and her inability to reach some close friends and relatives, she understood when she first appeared on a grassroots Facebook list of the missing. But she was quickly listed as found after she was able to get in touch with her loved ones.
Watson was baffled to be on the new, more official list. The FBI had her name listed as “Malama K. Watson.” She called the bureau to say she was safe but didn’t see any changes online Friday.
“Now it’s annoying,” she said. “There are people on there who are definitely missing. The focus needs to be on the people needing to be found still.”
Seth Alberico, a soccer coach from California’s Bay Area, said his name and his daughter Kalia’s had previously circulated on an unofficial, crowdsourced list, but he didn’t realize they were also on the new “verified” list until told by AP.
“I would love to be taken off the list,” he said. “We are both safe.”
Alberico was staying in a condo on Kaanapali Beach not far from the burn area at the time of the Aug. 8 fire. A former player knew he had been on Maui and knew he had a daughter, and she reported them missing when she couldn’t reach him on Facebook afterward, he said. His daughter hadn’t even been with him, he said.
He said he sent messages on Facebook and Instagram trying to be taken off the list, to no avail.
Crews search for remains
An additional 1,732 people reported missing had been found safe as of Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Crews have been searching for remains among the ashes of destroyed businesses and multi-storey residential buildings.
The affected area is about 85 per cent cleared, but the search will take weeks to complete, with many of the last structures posing complicated challenges, U.S. army Col. David Fielder, deputy commander of the joint task force responding to the wildfires, told a news conference on Friday.
Dozens of searchers have also been combing a 6.4-kilometre stretch of water for signs of anyone who might have perished after climbing over a seawall to try to escape the flames and black smoke enveloping the downtown.
Earlier in the week, officials pleaded for relatives of people who were still unaccounted for to come forward and give DNA samples to help identify remains, promising that the samples would not be entered into law enforcement databases or used in any other way. At the time, DNA had been collected from only 104 families, a figure officials described as concerningly low.
Maui Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Martin, who is leading the family assistance centre, said there has been a slight increase in the donation of samples since then.
“We’re still not where we want to be really in terms of the numbers,” he said.
Among the many reasons people may be hesitant is a “historical and generational mistrust of the government,” Martin said, referring to a sentiment rooted in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
As of Thursday, officials had notified the families of 35 victims who have been identified, but relatives of 11 more had not been located or notified. The identities of eight victims released Thursday included a family of four whose remains were found in a burned car near their home: seven-year-old Tony Takafua; his mother, Salote Tone, 39; and his grandparents, Faaoso Tone, 70, and Maluifonua Tone, 73.
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