The harrowing process of identifying victims of the Maui wildfire could take years, according to a forensic expert who helped at Ground Zero — with fears that children could be a large portion of the dead.
Despite 111 people being confirmed dead by early Thursday — a total expected to still rise considerably — officials have so far ùonly publicly identified five because most were burned beyond recognition.
The identification process “could be days if you’re lucky, it could be weeks, it could be months or it could even be a few years,” Dr. Robert Mann, a leading forensic anthropologist heading to Maui to help, told KHON 2.
Mann likened the painstaking process to his work helping to identify the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“They still are finding and identifying victims from the Twin Towers,” he noted.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said the death toll is expected to rise significantly higher, telling CNN Wednesday that more than 1,000 people are still unaccounted for and only 38% of the disaster zone has been searched with teams of cadaver dogs.
“This is much like what you see in a war zone or what we saw on 9/11,” the governor said of Lahaina, the historic town of 13,000 that bore the brunt of the devastation.
Hawaii state Rep. Elle Cochran told the Wall Street Journal she fears the final tally could be several hundred dead — with a large portion likely kids.
Several schools in and around Lahaina were scheduled to open for the fall semester on Tuesday last week, when the wildfire started raging, but classes were canceled due to a power outage.
That meant many kids were likely home alone, or with grandparents, while their parents went to work.
“Our parents work one, two, three jobs just to get by and they can’t afford to take a day off,” Jessica Sill, a kindergarten teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary School, told the WSJ.
“Without school, there was nowhere for [children] to go that day.”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier on Wednesday spoke of the enormity of the task ahead and the difficulty — both physical and emotional — of combing through the ashes of what used to be homes and businesses.
“Realize that the responders that are going out there are recovering their loved ones and members of their families,” he said, pleading for patience.
Mann said that fire destroys vital “pieces of the puzzle” that would have otherwise helped identify a victim on sight or by their fingerprints.
But it could still be accomplished if there is even a small bone fragment containing DNA present, he said..
“Every single case, every individual, every decedent is unique, they were unique in life, and they’re unique now,” he told KHON 2.
“And we just have to figure out what is going to be the magic piece of that science that’s going to end in identification.”
Maui County officials on Tuesday publicly named victims Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79. On Wednesday they identified three more elderly victims: Melva Benjamin, 71, Virginia Dofa, 90, and Alfredo Galinato, 79.
Hawaii officials, led by the governor, have been urging people who have relatives missing to submit samples of their DNA to assist with the identification process.
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