Lending a Hand in Lahaina
FBI Teams Gathered on Maui to Assist With Wildfire Recovery Efforts
News Release from FBI, Sept 27, 2023
When a wildfire devastated the island of Maui on August 8, killing at least 97 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes, the FBI was quick to offer assistance to our law enforcement partners in Hawaii.
Driving through Lahaina the next day, special agents from the FBI’s resident agency on Maui saw surreal scenes of melted cars and traffic lights. Boats anchored 100 yards offshore burned in Lahaina’s harbor. It’s estimated the fire’s temperature reached 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.
"I'd never been through something like that before," said one agent. "Lahaina was such a vibrant, colorful place. Everything was in grayscale. Even the water was black."
They immediately contacted Maui law enforcement to see what help was needed. The relationships the FBI has with local partners were strong to begin with, which helped efforts immensely. Maui Police Department (PD) invited the FBI to a briefing at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
Some initial concerns facing Maui PD were maintaining a perimeter around the search and rescue area—where active fires were still burning—and supporting the county’s morgue and evidence response team, which were quickly becoming inundated with remains of the deceased.
Within days of the fire, FBI resources such as the Evidence Response Team (ERT), forensic identification, and victim services deployed to Lahaina. FBI Honolulu Division’s professional support staff immediately responded with resources to support Maui PD and the FBI throughout the response.
"It is a privilege and an honor for the FBI to play a role in this endeavor," said Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill of the FBI Honolulu Division. “Our employees live, work, raise their children [on Maui]. And this is a big part of what we do in the FBI. We have resources that other agencies may not have. And even if they do have them, we want to be in a position to complement them. When the [Maui police] chief asked for our help, we didn’t hesitate."
Identifying the Missing
In the fire’s aftermath, Maui authorities received reports of over 2,500 individuals who were unaccounted for. Names came from Maui PD, the Red Cross, shelters, hotels, and airlines.
Jeff Felmann, a supervisory special agent in Honolulu, volunteered to lead a command post with agents, intelligence analysts, and professional staff to produce a consolidated list of the unaccounted for. Not every name on the list was a full name. Some were just partial names or nicknames.
Analysts searched public records databases and scoured social media for leads. Agents called the loved ones of unaccounted for individuals to request more information. Sometimes agents spoke with those reported as missing—"definitive confirmation," Felmann said—or analysts saw posts on social media stating the missing were alive.
On August 24, Maui County officials released to the public the first version of an FBI-validated list with first and last names of unaccounted for individuals. All names are associated with a verified phone number of a person who reported the individuals as missing. Law enforcement continues to update the list.
Because of the fire’s intensity and extreme temperatures, some victims may unfortunately never be found. Still, the Bureau continues its work to identify those who perished and help their families.
"It is a privilege and an honor for the FBI to play a role in this endeavor."
Steven Merrill, special agent in charge, FBI Honolulu
The burned shell of a car sits amid rubble in Lahaina. It’s estimated that the fire’s temperature reached 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.
Evidence Response and Forensic Resources
When FBI Honolulu’s ERT deployed to Maui, Special Agent Earl Asato knew it would be a challenging assignment. He told his 11-person team that "no one has seen to that magnitude" what they would see in Lahaina.
In addition, the fire’s devastation personally affected some of the team. Three ERT members have relatives on Maui, and Asato’s mother grew up near Lahaina. It was hard to comprehend the reality of the destroyed restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses his family had frequented.
While on Maui, ERT members assisted with autopsies in the morgue at Maui PD’s forensic facility in Wailuku, about 45 minutes from Lahaina. The team worked continuously with medical examiners and autopsy technicians to photograph remains and associated personal effects, handle and maneuver remains for examination, sift through remains and debris for possible identifying information, and document findings.
The team also processed and documented decedents’ personal effects: clothing, cellphones, identification cards, and jewelry. They knew that identifying and returning some of those personal items could help bring closure to the victims’ family.
Bryan Johnson, a physical scientist with the FBI’s Disaster Victim Identification Team, collected fingerprints. The state of recovered bodies varied—bodies that have suffered thermal damage are the hardest remains to process—and before the FBI’s involvement, Maui authorities estimated that five recovered bodies could be processed for prints. Johnson successfully fingerprinted 24, sending fingerprint information to colleagues and to the FBI Laboratory for further analysis as needed. The team there worked around the clock to help.
The morgue had multiple stations for fingerprints, DNA processing by a private company, and dental collection. Because some remains were co-mingled, anthropologists from universities also responded. ERT members and Johnson were also joined at the morgue by the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office’s Rapid Deployment Team to provide security there and at the Family Assistance Center.
Victim specialists Miranda Adkins and Veronica Cordova from the FBI’s Honolulu Division brought their crisis expertise to support grieving families at shelters and the Family Assistance Center, a one-stop shop offering hot meals and information about housing, medical, and financial services.
Their initial job was to provide "culturally sensitive crisis intervention and emotional support to families," said Adkins, a licensed clinical social worker. Hawaii has a diverse population that includes many cultures. The victim specialists comforted bereft relatives as they completed extensive paperwork about the unaccounted for and gave DNA swabs.
"We worked closely with other local agencies. This was definitely a team effort," said Cordova. "Maui is dear to me. I often stayed in Lahaina, so making the drive to see what was left was heart-wrenching."
By August 18, some DNA matches of the deceased had been returned, and it was time to make next-of-kin death notifications. Many of the families the FBI visited for the notifications had previously met Adkins and Cordova at the Family Assistance Center. This familiarity helped when it came time to deliver grim news.
They traveled to relatives’ homes with an officer from Maui PD or Honolulu PD and chaplains to provide "wraparound support," said Adkins. "We wanted the next of kin to feel they were emotionally supported with a team approach through such a difficult situation."
Victim specialists assist with death notifications through planning, preparation, delivery, and follow-up with compassionate and direct communication. As part of the follow-up process, Adkins and Cordova shared mental health resources, and the FBI’s support to these families continues.
Help is still needed to identify unaccounted for individuals who may have been impacted by the wildfires.
Maui PD has released the names of those still unaccounted for and has asked the public to assist in information related to the unaccounted for individuals.
The FBI has stood up a seeking information questionnaire. Please complete this form if:
You have information about a listed unaccounted for person.
You are related to an unaccounted for person and would like to provide a DNA sample.
You would like to report a person who is still unaccounted for and could be a potential victim of the wildfires but is not yet listed.
Additionally, if you are aware of anyone who is still unaccounted for, whether they are on the published list or not, please contact Maui PD at (808) 244-6400 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to complete a missing persons report.
If you are an immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child) of an individual you believe is still unaccounted for, live on Maui, and want to provide a DNA sample to assist with the identification process, please call 808-270-7771.
If you live outside of Maui and would like to submit a DNA sample, please complete the questionnaire or contact the FBI at 808-566-4300 and you will receive instructions on how you may provide your DNA in this effort.