HONOLULU (KHON2) — Maui police are tasked with searching for victims of the disaster, to recover those who lost their lives, and to notify grieving families. In an exclusive interview, KHON2 spoke with MPD Chief John Pelletier.
For 10 grueling days and nights, MPD has been in go mode like nothing before.
“I don’t think there’s an agency that has shown more grit and resolve in the face of what they’re facing than the men and women of MPD, period,” Pelletier said.
It began Tuesday, Aug., 8 when again and again MPD officers went above and beyond to get people out of Lahaina and upcountry.
“The officers drove around with their cars, telling people to get out of their house. If people refused, they actually got out of their cars and pleaded with people to leave the area,” he said. “I have an officer from Kihei who drove in and grabbed a severely burned individual, drove them to the hospital, then drove back to the scene and help rescue a family of four and got them to safety.”
KHON2 asked is there anything even in these first 10 days they’ve learned that they’d do differently in a next disaster, as we’re still in drought, fire-risk and hurricane season? Pelletier says they don’t yet know but, “the fact that we know we’re dealing with at least 111 and counting fatalities, for me to say we would not do something differently or anybody to say that is not the right answer. You want to constantly look at what’s working, what’s not, and how can we get better. We’re going to certainly do that with this.”
All MPD staff are safe and accounted, he says, but 15 lost their homes.
“They knew they lost their homes and they were still out there saving lives,” he said.
KHON2 has verified that a variety of missing or unaccounted lists all still hover around 1,000 people.
KHON2 asked, how is the process of tracking that list improving?
“So we have created what’s called the MINT, which is the Morgue Identification Notification Task Force. We’ve got our doctors, we’ve got our x-ray techs, we’ve got dentists, we’ve got the best fingerprint experts in the country just came in today,” he said. “We’ve got artifacts that are being collected and gone through. We’ve got DNA that’s being done and we’ve got the experts in the field. We’ve got experts from local, as well as our federal agencies and federal partners that were coming in to scrub all of the missing persons reports.”
Just yesterday, the Galinato family allowed KHON2’s Kristy Tamashiro to share with viewers the heartwrenching moment an MPD officer told them their father had perished.
KHON2 asked of the unfathomable strength that it must take the men and women of HPD to do that possibly hundreds more times: How did they prepare for that?
“I am blessed to have folks on this agency that have the strength and resolve that is really legendary in a sense,” Pelletier said. “I grabbed the lead individual that is tasked with this, and I told him, I said, ‘I’m about to ask you something that nobody should ever be asked.’”
Pelletier drew from traffic officers and detectives used to making death notifications. Peer support, chaplain and mental health services are provided on the force.
Also on island to help with the response and recovery are officers from other counties.
“I’ve got folks from HPD as well as Hawaii County here right now,” he said.
Many residents and viewers reaching out to KHON2 said it took too long early last week to get supplies out to West Maui, and to lift traffic restrictions on the bypass road.
KHON2 asked, how can those kinds of issues be better balanced more quickly in the future?
“So let’s just actually take it to the event. I needed to get people out of it and I needed to get first responders and emergency crews into it,” he said. “And so we made sure that residents that wanted to leave could leave and we made sure that emergency supplies that could get in got in.”
Gina Mangieri’s full interview with the Maui Police Chief
Before becoming Maui County’s police chief, Pelletier was in Las Vegas. He was incident commander at the nation’s deadliest mass shooting there in 2017. Now, he’s head of law enforcement after the nation’s deadliest wildfire.
KHON2 asked, did any aspect of that Las Vegas tragedy prepare him for this?
“I think it’s actually a fair question. I’ll tell you this, though. The honest answer is I couldn’t do this if I didn’t do that,” he said. “There’s an incredible group that I got to be blessed and privileged to work with in Las Vegas. The group that I get to be with here now, I would take that team anywhere.”