Hundreds of people are still listed as unaccounted for after this month’s devastating wildfires on Maui – a number that’s expected to change as the FBI continues vetting names.
The “validated list” curated by the FBI currently includes 388 names, Maui County said Thursday, as cell phone data is now being used to try to pinpoint where victims may have been when the deadliest US wildfire disaster in more than 100 years tore through the Hawaiian island. At least 115 people are confirmed dead, though authorities say that number is likely to change.
The FBI on Friday acknowledged the list of names was “a subset of a larger list” of people who are believed to be missing. Steven Merrill, the bureau’s special agent in charge in Hawaii, said those currently on the list are people who authorities had more complete information about. Since the list was released, they’ve gotten “at least 100 people that have notified us that a certain person shouldn’t be on the list,” Merrill said – so the number of those still unaccounted for is expected to change.
As the race to identify the lost continues, the state’s main electrical utility stands accused of compromising evidence in the fire investigation, and Maui County officials have followed others in suing the company over responsibility for the fire. First responders also are pressing for answers about why they weren’t better prepared after a similar ruinous fire five years ago.
The updated list of the missing was released with hopes of confirming anyone who’s not truly still lost, officials said.
“We’re releasing this list of names today because we know that it will help with the investigation,” Police Chief John Pelletier said in the release. “We also know that once those names come out, it can and will cause pain for folks whose loved ones are listed. 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.”
Pelletier said Friday that since the names were released, authorities have received hundreds of calls. Authorities would like to do a weekly update on the list of missing people to help notify the public, he said.
The FBI has worked with agencies “to unduplicate people that have been reported missing,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said earlier Thursday in a social media post. Some 800 to 1,200 people have been listed as unaccounted for since the fires, he said.
The grim search for those believed missing began shortly after wind-whipped flames tore through the island on August 8. Much of the western Maui community of Lahaina – once a lively economic and cultural hub – was left in ruins, with entire neighborhoods and businesses reduced to ash. Some residents were forced to jump into the ocean to survive as flames overtook the town.
Search crews and cadaver dogs have searched 100% of single-story homes in the disaster area, Maui County officials said Tuesday. They are now going through multistory homes and commercial properties.
And an FBI team that specializes in using cell phone data has launched in Maui to help identify potential fire victims, a law enforcement source told CNN. The Cellular Analysis Survey Team was on the island working with local law enforcement, the official said.
The team can get and analyze cell phone company subscriber records and cellular tower registration data, which could prove useful to the search efforts by geolocating the last known area where a victim’s cell phone was operating.
The team in the past has used information obtained through court orders to help with terrorism, kidnapping and criminal investigations.
“Cellular telephone analysis” is among the resources being provided by the bureau, Steven Merrill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Hawaii, said during news conference Tuesday without giving specifics.
Additionally, Maui County has named a new interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency after its prior chief resigned from the post August 17.
In announcing Darryl Oliveira’s hiring Friday, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said he has a track record of “invaluable experience and skill during challenging times.”
Oliveira, who previously served as the administrator of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, is expected to begin leading the county’s emergency agency Monday.
Sarah Salmonese sits where her apartment once stood in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, August 11.
Ken Alba carries a bag of ice at a food and supply distribution center that was set up in the parking lot of a Lahaina shopping mall on Thursday, August 17.
Fences are built around destroyed neighborhoods in Lahaina on August 17.
Destroyed homes are seen in Lahaina on Wednesday, August 16.
The state flag of Hawaii flies over a sign in Lahaina that says "tourist keep out" on August 16. Vacationers are being asked to stay home as Maui recovers. Many hotels are housing evacuees.
A woman lays down flowers and prays on a hillside overlooking the rubble of Lahaina on August 16.
The Lahaina neighborhood of Wahikuli Terrace is seen on Tuesday, August 15.
Search-and-rescue workers look through damage in Lahaina on August 15.
An FBI agent watches as two additional refrigerated storage containers arrive next to the Maui Police Forensic Facility where human remains were being stored in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Monday, August 14.
A spoon lies in the rubble of a home destroyed by the wildfire in Kula, Hawaii, on August 14.
Lauren Haley sprays water on hot spots in her Kula neighborhood on August 14.
JP Mayoga, a chef at the Westin Maui Resort, is embraced by his wife, Makalea Ahhee, at the hotel near Lahaina on Sunday, August 13. About 200 employees were living at the hotel with their families.
Volunteers in Kihei, Hawaii, load water onto a boat to be transported to West Maui on August 13.
People pray during a church service in Wailuku on August 13. The Maui Coffee Attic opened up space for the service after a wildfire destroyed Lahaina's Grace Baptist Church.
People wait in line at a checkpoint to gain access to Lahaina on Saturday, August 12.
Volunteers offload supplies that would be delivered to a distribution center for evacuees in Napili-Honokowai, Hawaii, on August 12.
Honolulu Fire Department responders work in Lahaina on August 11.
This aerial photo shows the shells of burned houses, vehicles and buildings in Lahaina on August 11.
Zoltan Balogh clears away trees that were burned by the wildfire in Kula.
Cars are backed up on the Honoapiilani Highway as residents are allowed back into wildfire-affected areas on August 11.
Volunteers in Maalaea, Hawaii, watch truckloads of donated food and supplies depart for Lahaina on August 10.
Wildfire wreckage is seen in Lahaina on August 10.
Volunteers stack canned goods at the War Memorial Stadium in Kahului.
Burned cars sit in Lahaina on August 10.
Vixay Phonxaylinkham holds his 4-year-old child Lana while they wait for their flight at the Kahului Airport on August 10. Phonoxaylinkham, his wife and their five children were heading back to California. They had been caught in the wildfires, but they survived by spending four hours in the ocean.
People arrive on school buses to evacuate the Maui airport on August 10.
Building wreckage is seen in Lahaina on August 10.
Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits in front of an evacuation center in Wailuku on August 10. The Ah Hees were looking for her husband's brother. Their home in Lahaina was spared, but the homes of many of their relatives were destroyed by wildfires.
Puong Sui, center, talks to her daughter at the evacuation center in Kahului on August 10. Sui lost her house and belongings in Lahaina and was planning to fly to Las Vegas to reunite with her family.
A wildfire burns in Kihei on August 9.
This satellite image shows an overview of wildfires in Lahaina on August 9.
People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights on August 9.
Helicopters with the Hawaii Army National Guard perform water bucket drops to assist in the firefighting efforts on August 9.
Residents carry their belongings after wildfires swept through Lahaina on August 9.
Passengers try to sleep on the floor of the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights on August 9.
The hall of the historic Waiola Church and the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames in Lahaina on August 8.
In pictures: The deadly Maui wildfires
Evidence may have been compromised, power company says
As the human toll of the fire comes into focus, investigators also are trying to determine what sparked the flames, and while no official cause has been announced, the Hawaiian Electric Company is facing scrutiny over its actions before and after the fires broke out.
Some evidence potentially vital in determining the cause of the deadly fire in Lahaina may have been compromised, Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) acknowledged in an exchange with attorneys included in court documents obtained by CNN.
The company said fallen power poles, power lines and other equipment were moved during firefighting efforts and as officials worked to make the area safe for residents, according to letters part of a class action lawsuit. The company told attorneys, who are representing Lahaina residents in the class action suit, that it was “possible, even likely” that evidence that “relate(s) to the cause of the fire” might be lost, correspondence obtained by CNN shows.
The equipment was removed from the area around the Lahaina substation – which is thought to be where the blaze started – before federal investigators arrived.
Those actions could have violated national guidelines, which say the fire scenes should be heavily preserved for investigators and any and all evidence should be secured and not removed from the site without documentation, court documents filed by attorneys say.
The ATF said on August 17 that its National Response Team was being deployed to Hawaii to help determine the cause and origin of the deadly fire – days after the utility company acknowledged equipment and evidence had likely been moved or lost.
On August 10 – two days after the wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina, a group of attorneys notified the utility of anticipated litigation and requested that all electrical equipment that may relate to the origin of the fire – including power poles, lines and conductors – be preserved.
An attorney for Hawaiian Electric responded on August 11 that some potential evidence may have already been compromised during the firefight, not by the utility itself, but by others.
John Moore, an attorney for the utility wrote to attorneys for the families on August 11 that the company’s main focus was the safety of first responders and displaced residents and restoring power.
The company also noted it was taking steps to preserve property but local, state and federal agencies were on the ground and it was possible “that the actions of these third parties, whose actions Hawaiian Electric does not control, may result in the loss of property or other items that relate to the cause of the fire.”
The families’ attorneys then submitted a request for a temporary restraining order to stop Hawaiian Electric from altering the scene where it’s believed the Lahaina fire started, court documents show.
A judge signed an interim discovery order on August 18, detailing how the company should handle evidence around the scene, including preserving and protecting all physical evidence within a defined area and refraining from destructive testing.
The order also specified that it was not making any findings of any wrongdoing at this time.
The class action lawsuit was filed several days after the fires ignited alleging Hawaiian Electric failed to deenergize power lines ahead of the fire despite high wind and red flag warnings. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. It is believed to have ignited near a power substation where “where authorities reported a downed power line early on August 8, 2023,” the complaint says.
Hawaiian Electric vice president Jim Kelly previously told CNN that, “as has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation.”
“At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review,” he said.
Hawaiian Electric has been “in regular communication with ATF and local authorities and are cooperating to provide them, as well as attorneys representing people affected by the wildfires, with inventories and access to the removed equipment, which we have carefully photographed, documented and stored,” a spokesperson told CNN.
The spokesperson for the utility company told CNN “Hawaiian Electric understands its legal obligations and took extraordinary steps to preserve evidence.”
The ATF’s National Response Team, which is investigating the cause of the fire, declined to comment.
The county has sued the electric company
While the investigation continues, Maui County officials made their position clear in a lawsuit filed Thursday, claiming “the negligence, carelessness, and recklessness, and/or unlawfulness” of Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries is directly responsible for the fires.
The utility, known as HECO, “inexcusably kept their power lines energized” in early August, despite the National Weather Service issuing a High Wind Watch and a Fire Warning, the lawsuit alleges. The warnings cautioned that strong winds could knock down power lines and ignite a fire that would spread quickly due to dry conditions, the lawsuit indicated.
Maui County is seeking damages from HECO that may total tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, said John Fiske, an attorney representing the county in the suit.
“Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County. We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” a spokesperson from Hawaiian Electric told CNN in a statement.
Hawaiian Electric Company serves 95% of the state’s customer base.
As of Thursday, officials still were tracking at least three active fires on Maui, including the Lahaina fire, which was 90% contained after burning more than 2,170 acres. The Olinda fire, which has burned an estimated 1,081 acres, was 85% contained, and the Kula fire was also 85% contained, with just over 200 acres burned, county officials said.
‘We all knew this was going to happen again’
And even as fire crews work to find and contain hot spots, a Hawaii police union official said firefighters “were set up for failure” ahead of the outbreak.
Following a destructive wildfire that broke out in 2018 under similar conditions in the same area, no wildfire management or other preventative methods were taken to mitigate future disasters, Nicholas Krau, the Maui Chapter Chair for the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, told CNN.
“We all knew this was going to happen again. While no one could have predicted this much destruction or loss of life, we all knew there would be another destructive fire that would threaten these same businesses and homes again,” Krau said. “I don’t know who’s responsible for preventing wildland fires and managing the private owned land where the fire started, but they should definitely answer for it.”
More than 2,000 acres burned and 20 homes were damaged in the 2018 fire, county officials have said.
Many police officers who helped with evacuations this month suffered smoke inhalation because they didn’t have proper respiratory protection, even after it was requested following previous fires, Krau said.
“If someone needs help, (the police) are going to rush in and do everything they can to help. But the department and county of Maui have the obligation to properly equip them,” he said.
CNN has reached out to Maui County and the Maui Police Department for comment on Krau’s claims.
CNN’s Josh Campbell, Norma Galeana, Taylor Romine and Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.