Lahaina death toll remains unclear as Hawaii authorities near the end of their search

Lahaina death toll remains unclear as Hawaii authorities near the end of their search

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Crews in Hawaii have all but finished searching for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, authorities said Tuesday, and it is unclear how many people perished.

Three weeks after the fire devastated Maui’s historic seaside community of Lahaina, the count of the dead stands at 115. But an unknown number of people are still missing.

Maui County officials on Aug. 24 released the names of of 388 people who were unaccounted for, part of a larger group of roughly 1,000-1,100 people that had been estimated missing by the FBI.

However, within a day of its release, more than 100 of those on the list or their relatives came forward to say they were safe, the FBI said the following day.

Officials told CBS News that it doesn’t necessarily mean those 100-plus have been removed from the list, because that new information still needed to be vetted and confirmed.  

President Biden visits an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023.
President Biden visits an area devastated by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on August 21, 2023.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images


Officials suggested that responders likely have already recovered any remains that are recognizable as such, and they are shifting the response to focus on removing hazardous waste and making the area safe for residents to begin returning.

“We have wrapped up almost completely the search and recovery mission and moving into the next phase,” Darryl Oliveira, the interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The next phase would be hazardous waste removal conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

Wildfire smoke is known to cause a range of health issues, most notably breathing issues. But when they burn through cities, the flames also burn up industrial items, buildings, cars and a slew of other things that can release toxic chemicals. 

According to the state’s Department of Health, “toxic contaminants present in debris and ash” remain a top hazard concern in Lahaina, as do other heavy metals and chemicals that may be in the ashen remains of the city, such as asbestos.

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said urban search and rescue teams have “completed 100% of their area” but some search activity continues in the ocean off Lahaina.

A worker is seen in fire-ravaged Lahaina town, Maui Island, Hawaii, on Aug. 22, 2023.
A worker is seen in fire-ravaged Lahaina town, Maui Island, Hawaii, on Aug. 22, 2023.

Gao Shan/Xinhua via Getty Images


The FBI is searching 200 yards out along a four-mile stretch of coastline, but no human remains have been found, he said. There are 110 missing persons reports filed with Maui police, and more than 50 of those remain open cases that are still actively being worked, he said.

Although the initial land search is complete, authorities may also use details from the missing person reports to go over areas again, he added.

“They say, “My loved one was here’ and this may be a data point and we can continue,” Pelletier said. “In case there was a chance that something needs to be further looked at, we’ve got archeologists and we’re gonna make sure that we can do that so, again, we do this the right way.”

He asked for “trust and patience” as officials continue to identify remains and go through lists of the missing.

So far, authorities have identified and notified the loved ones of 45 of those killed. They have collected DNA from 120 people to identify the dead and continue to see more samples.

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