HONOLULU (KHON2) — The case of a child’s remains brought to the Maui Police Department after his own family found him isn’t the only time we have heard from families who found their own loved ones deceased. Yet some relatives who hold the genetic keys to identifying other remains are reluctant to submit DNA. Always Investigating digs deeper into that problem.
Remains recovered from ground zero continue to come into overflow county morgue facilities, awaiting identification, but with a dearth of DNA from living relatives needed to do the job. Officials estimate as many as 1,100 are still unaccounted for but still only 115 official fatalities.
“It’s kind of hard to believe when the folks that had originally been at ground zero were seeing hundreds of bodies on Front Street,” said Councilmember Tamara Paltin, who represents West Maui on the Maui County Council. “I had heard from folks that there were some along the shoreline as well. When they looked down (in the water) they did see quite a bit.”
KHON2 sat down with FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven Merrill to ask why still the big gap between the numbers missing and unaccounted, the number of dead traumatized people saw, and the official count. The FBI is supporting a joint effort led by the county’s police department.
“We really want to get to the bottom of this,” Merrill said. “We want to know what happened. We want to know whether or not our family members and friends are safe.”
Merrill was among the federal and county officials pleading with the public at a press conference Tuesday to come forward for DNA swabs. Three-quarters of recovered remains have yielded searchable DNA, but only 104 donors have submitted samples. Officials say that is a low percentage so far versus the volume of remains found.
So why the reluctance of family to come forward?
“I think some of the hesitation is just different groups who have been maybe marginalized in the past or who are worried about immigration,” explained Ellie Erickson, one of the creators of the grassroots Maui Fires People Locator database which listed just over 600 people not-located as of today, “and the history with a distrust of government, which is justified in a lot of ways, they don’t want to go.”
Federal and county officials say the DNA will only be used for identifying the dead, and the rights of the living are protected in consent agreements they’ll get before any swab. but there’s more to the resistance.
“There is that collective rage against anything by the government, the way that the first four or so days were handled,” Paltin said.
KHON2 asked Merrill: How do you overcome all of these valid concerns?
“Everyone has a concern, and the irony is that I think everyone wants the same thing,” he said, “of course (to) give closure to the family members.”
Many say they already know a loved one is gone without needing a test.
“They did see the remains of people, whether in their house or in their car, and so for them, there’s so much grief that’s going on right now,” Erickson said, “and they’re not going to go out of their way to go to the Hyatt (in Kaanapali, West Maui) to get a swab done.”
“Aloha aku, aloha mai,” Paltin said. “If you want us to help you, you need to help us where we’re at. Don’t just come in and ask traumatized people to satisfy a need that you have when their needs aren’t being satisfied.”
But officials say they need the match from even the living who already know their loved ones’ fate so they can help narrow down matches yet to be made for the unidentified.
“The more information we have, the better we’re combining and collecting new information every day,” Merrill said. “That’s helping us figure out other means of identifying who is in the area and who is safe.”
Full interview with FBI Special Agent in Charge, Steve Merrill
Some remains won’t be identifiable due to high heat, no DNA available from what’s left, or no DNA from a willing surviving relative. Those will at some point be declared presumed dead.
“That’s going to be a call made by ultimately, the coroner, in this case, Chief John Pelletier of the Maui Police Department,” Merrill said. “And we’re trying our hardest as a team trying to get this information in his hands as quickly as we can.”
DNA samples can be provided at the Family Assistance Center at the Hyatt Regency’s Monarch Ballroom in Kaanapali. Those who need to report a missing person can call the FBI at (808) 566-4300.