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Identifying human remains in Maui's burn zone is grueling and complicated, teams say

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Maui, authorities are pleading with the public to be patient as forensics teams have now been working for about two weeks trying to find bodies after the deadly wildfire. Forty-nine of the more than 100 found dead so far have now been identified. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, teams are making slow progress due to how hot the fires burned.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Commander Frank Sebastian is leading a federal team of more than two dozen pathologists, forensic dentists and coroners who have mobilized here from around the U.S. to help the overwhelmed Maui County coroner's office. It's a huge challenge trying to make IDs when the fire incinerated so much evidence.

FRANK SEBASTIAN: In this case, that's a pretty difficult task due to the condition of the remains. When you're dealing with - you know, with burns, you have a lot of destruction of tissue, and it becomes a very painstaking process to kind of reassemble that.

SIEGLER: If they're lucky, they have DNA samples to work off or dental records given to the teams by families of those who are unaccounted for. Commander Sebastian sounds stoic and matter-of-fact, but he knows things here are grim.

SEBASTIAN: Those of us that have been involved in this type of response over the years - I mean, we've been to Katrina. We've been to other wildfires, but this is a very devastating response.

SIEGLER: Now, the majority of the burned area has been searched, but teams are still working through some of the bigger buildings. Not even a few hundred yards from where Sebastian is talking to us in Lahaina, you can see the devastation - twisted, downed power lines, only the cement elevator shafts left standing from what appears to have been an apartment building.

Just charred remains and rubble from here at least a mile or so down to the sea itself, and it still smells like smoke and ash right here where I'm standing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE PASSING)

MANUEL SOCCO: We were here since the 8 on the night of the fire. We were here. We landed - boots on ground were around 2100.

SIEGLER: Sergeant Manuel Socco is with a U.S. Army search and extraction team. They've been working more than 14 straight days now. They cleared debris in front of the canine units - the dogs that are trained to then go in and search for bodies. Socco is from Maui. His extended family lost their homes as did several guys on his team. But the work must go on.

SOCCO: We're pretty resilient, high morale. We're - we don't - we always support each other.

SIEGLER: The boss, Lieutenant Ryan Edgar, who's usually based on Oahu, says Socco is being humble.

RYAN EDGAR: Myself and members of the team are experiencing things that you don't typically experience.

SIEGLER: This is stressful, and these guys are working in dangerous situations in a place that a lot of them call home. But he says they have a lot of counselors around to talk to while they do this difficult job. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Edgar knows so many fire survivors here are still desperate for some news.

EDGAR: We're here to support the people of Lahaina. The best we can do is help bring closure to them by identifying victims - as many of them as we can.

SIEGLER: Maui's police chief this week said that some victims may never be accounted for. That's not surprising to Curt Hanthorn, who was standing in a long line at the post office in Lahaina picking up his mail for the first time in two weeks.

CURT HANTHORN: Seven of my friends died in the fires, and I'm sure that'll increase as time goes on. It's hard to process, you know? It's hard to focus on what we need - what I - you know, what I need to do every day. Honestly, I got to write a note to remind myself to bathe.

SIEGLER: Hanthorn is shaken but also frustrated that some of his neighbors are getting ugly on social media.

HANTHORN: Pointing blame - it's the electric company's fault. It's the county's fault. It's Joe Biden's fault. It's everybody's fault. They want an easy answer. And the fact of the matter is, I saw it from beginning to end, and it moves so fast, like a blowtorch.

SIEGLER: And the recovery here, whether it's searching for loved ones or just removing debris, will be anything but fast. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Maui.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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