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Home First, a Ferocious Fire. Now, a Slow, Grim Search for the Dead.

First, a Ferocious Fire. Now, a Slow, Grim Search for the Dead.

by nytime
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DNA specialists who have been working with Ukrainian investigators to document suspected Russian war crimes. Veterans of the post-Sept. 11 search at ground zero. Anthropologists who were enlisted to examine human remains after the California wildfire that until last week was America’s deadliest in more than a century.

They are among the experts who have been arriving in Maui this week to join the painstaking process of recovering and identifying more than 100 people who perished last week in the historic Hawaii town of Lahaina.

“Over the course of the next 10 days, this number could double,” Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii said on Monday in an interview on CNN. “I don’t want to really guess at a number because our people are working so hard right now.”

Many of the people being called on to help played similar roles in the aftermath of the Camp fire, the 2018 disaster in Northern California that killed 85 people and reduced to ash the town of Paradise, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Kim Gin, the former Sacramento County coroner who led the effort to identify the remains of victims of the Camp fire, flew into Maui on Monday. Forensic anthropologists from California State University, Chico, who assisted at the Camp fire were scrambling this week to arrange travel to Hawaii.

And scientists with ANDE, a company based in Colorado that uses rapid DNA technology — which processes results in less than two hours with a device the size of a laser printer — have been on the ground in Hawaii for days, and more technicians were on their way.

Also in Lahaina are rescuers who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, Maui’s police chief, John Pelletier, said. Twenty cadaver dogs are working with search teams, along with a specialized mortuary unit from the federal government that arrived with a 22-ton mobile morgue that includes examination tables, lab equipment and X-ray machines.

With families facing an agonizing wait for word on missing loved ones, the final death toll from the Aug. 8 fire is likely to continue climbing, and the full scope of human loss may not be known for weeks, or perhaps months.

“I understand people want numbers,” Chief Pelletier said at a news conference on Monday. “It’s not a numbers game.”

As of Tuesday evening in Hawaii, the authorities had publicly identified two of the 106 people who have been confirmed dead, and the search for more victims was continuing. Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, both of Lahaina, were among those killed, Maui County said in a news release on Tuesday evening.

Before officials publicly released his name, the family of Mr. Jantoc had identified him as having perished. As days passed with no word from Mr. Jantoc, his family had begun to fear the worst. His relatives started to panic, because he was the kind of grandfather who always checked in after a heavy rain or storm to assure everyone he was OK.

On Saturday, two police officers showed up to notify the family that they had found his body in his home, said Keshia Alakai, his oldest granddaughter.

“I hope to God he did not suffer,” she said, describing her grandfather as a musician who once toured the mainland with Carlos Santana before settling into a more laid-back lifestyle on Maui.

The authorities said on Tuesday that they had searched 32 percent of the burn zone in Lahaina, which runs from the hillsides to the Pacific Ocean, and the area was closed to the public while teams searched for remains, even as residents grew increasingly frustrated about not being able to return to Lahaina to check on their properties.

Chief Pelletier said one person had been arrested on a trespassing charge, and he had a message for others who might try to enter the area illegally. “It’s not just ash on your clothing when you take it off,” he said. “It’s our loved ones.”

The police have asked family members of the missing to submit DNA swabs at a community center in Maui for comparisons to recovered remains. Chief Pelletier asked relatives who are out of state to provide DNA to their local law enforcement agencies.

The numbers so far speak to how careful and slow the process is. Of the confirmed victims, five have been identified, though only two of their names have been made public. Examiners have been able to extract DNA profiles from 13 victims, and so far have received 41 DNA samples from family members of the missing.

ANDE, whose technology was funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security, is often used by law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes and crack cold cases. For the last year, the company been involved in the war in Ukraine, training the police there to examine victims of suspected war crimes and collect evidence that could be used at trials at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Its technology was also used when 34 people died in a fire on a dive boat off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2019, and to process remains from the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant a few months later.

“The challenge, of course, is the remains you process and the family samples don’t always coincide,” said Stephen Meer, the chief information officer of ANDE, which is processing samples of remains as they are collected by search teams in Lahaina. “If you are missing someone, get your family reference sample in.”

Mr. Meer said he was confident that most of the victims would eventually be identified by DNA — during the Camp fire, close to 90 percent of those who perished were identified with ANDE’s tests — but he added, “I can’t imagine it would be for all.”

As recovery teams search for human remains, others have been looking for lost and dead pets. “People are desperately searching for pets,” said Lisa Labrecque, the chief executive of the Maui Humane Society.

Ms. Labrecque estimated that 3,000 animals had been lost, and she said that her organization had received 367 reports of missing pets. She said her teams had been rescuing injured or displaced animals each day. They have recovered 57 live animals, 12 of which are hospitalized. They have been able to reunite eight animals with their owners.

To make space, the Humane Society has been sending animals that had been living in its shelters before the fire to the mainland. So far, more than 150 cats and kittens have been flown out, and 100 dogs are waiting to travel.

As search teams with cadaver dogs continue their slow process of sorting through the rubble of Lahaina, anthropologists — who often play a pivotal role in processing mass casualty scenes — were being dispatched to help in identifying human remains that might be just shards of bone. “We know what burned human remains look like and can differentiate them from an animal or something someone might have had in a kitchen,” said Marin Pilloud, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Ms. Pilloud was involved in recovering remains after the Camp fire. The process was methodical: Working from a list of the missing and any information about where those people might have been at the time of the fire, she joined teams that would conduct searches at specific addresses.

“One step was to see if they were in fact trapped in their house,” she said. “So we would sift through all the debris of the house and try to identify if there were remains there.”

She said that in the moonscape left by a fire as destructive as the one that wiped out Lahaina, many items collected in an ashcan could appear to be human remains.

“Like drywall of the house can sometimes curl up in a way that looks like bone,” she said. “Insulation can sometimes melt in ways that look like bone.”

She added, “We are trained in these sort of archaeological recovery efforts, so we can systematically go through and try to identify if there are remains there.”

Jack Healy and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.

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