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Hope becoming harder to hold onto after Maui fire, as odds wane over reuniting with still-missing loved ones

Remains of 114 people have been found, but toll is likely to rise

By Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press
Published: August 20, 2023, 5:36pm
2 Photos
FILE - The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023. When the most deadly U.S. fire in a century ripped across the Hawaiian island, it damaged hundreds of drinking water pipes, resulting in a loss of pressure that likely allowed toxic chemicals along with metals and bacteria into water lines. Experts are using strong language to warn Maui residents in Lahaina and Upper Kula not to filter their own tap water. (AP Photo/Jae C.
FILE - The aftermath of a wildfire is visible in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023. When the most deadly U.S. fire in a century ripped across the Hawaiian island, it damaged hundreds of drinking water pipes, resulting in a loss of pressure that likely allowed toxic chemicals along with metals and bacteria into water lines. Experts are using strong language to warn Maui residents in Lahaina and Upper Kula not to filter their own tap water. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Photo Gallery

LAHAINA, Hawaii — The days of waiting have become harder and harder as the odds grow longer and longer, but Kevin Baclig remains undeterred in his search for his wife and her parents, missing since Aug. 8 when a wildfire engulfed and flattened the Hawaiian town of Lahaina.

He has gone looking from one shelter to another, hoping strangers might recognize the faces on the flyers he brings with him. Baclig, 30, has driven back and forth to Lahaina, desperately scouting for anything that might lead him to his wife, Angelica, and her parents, Joel and Adela Villegas. Six other relatives who lived next door also remain unaccounted for.

“I’m not going to give up until I see them,” he said. “Of course I’m hoping to find them alive. … What else can I do?”

Even as he tries to sound optimistic, his voice is subdued.

“I’ve been searching and searching — in Lahaina, everywhere,” Baclig said, speaking in Ilocano, a dialect of the northern Philippines.

The blaze took scores of lives and destroyed hundreds of homes, including the house Baclig’s family bought three years ago on Kopili Street, about a 15-minute walk to historic Front Street, once a bustling tourist center but now a bleak avenue of flattened buildings lined with charred vehicles.

The remains of 114 people have been found, most of them yet to be identified. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has said the death toll will likely rise in the days to come as the painstaking search for remains continues in the heaps of rubble and ash in Lahaina, a seaside community of 12,000 and a tourist hotspot on Maui.

Officials acknowledge they don’t have a firm number on the missing. Many initially listed as unaccounted for have since been located.

Crews have sifted through about 60 percent of the fire zone, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said Saturday.

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“We are making progress, and we will continue to be with the people of Hawaii every step of the way,” Criswell said. The agency approved nearly $7 million to aid more than 2,000 households, including $3 million in rental assistance.

More than 1,000 federal personnel are on Maui, nearly half of whom are assigned to help in the search for remains, the White House said.

A spokesperson for Maui County, Mahina Martin, said Saturday that authorities involved in the search effort were working to compile a list of the missing and continued to vet the information being gathered.

The only publicly available list has been compiled by good Samaritans hoping to link family with loved ones, but it isn’t always up to date.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Lahaina on Monday to survey the devastation and meet with survivors and local officials.

Last week, Police Chief John Pelletier said authorities would do their best to track down the missing. “But I can’t promise that we’re going to get them all,” he said.

On the day before the fire, Po’omaika’i Estores-Losano, a 28-year-old father of two, wished aloha to his ohana, the Hawaiian word for family. “Another beautiful day in Hawaii,” he wrote on Facebook, ending his post by urging his circle to “have fun, enjoy” and to never be “unhappy and grumpy.”

He was among the scores still missing Saturday. His family has scoured the island looking for him, checking hospitals and shelters. Without a car, Estores-Losano would have had to outrun the fire and smoke.

“We don’t want him to think we stopped looking for him,” said Ku’ulei Barut, who last spoke to her brother the day before he went missing.

His mother, Leona Castillo, wants to hang on to the possibility that her son is still alive, but she knows she may have to face a reality she’s not yet ready to accept. Last week, as the talk of body counts intensified, she got herself swabbed for DNA.

She wants him found, no matter how and where.

“We don’t want him to be lost,” she said. “If we don’t get his body back, he’ll just be lost.”

In the days after the fire, there was chaos and confusion, with so many families looking for missing loved ones. Castillo said she was relieved for friends and neighbors who were reunited.

But she wondered when would it be her turn.

“I just want closure,” she said.

Ace Yabes is also waiting for word about his relatives — nine in all who are missing, including Angelica Baclig, whose family lived next door to an aunt and her family, five of whom have yet to be found.

Kevin Baclig was at work as a nurse at a skilled nursing facility when the fire raced down from the hills and into town, igniting nearly everything in its path.

“I’ve been searching all the shelters, hotels, possible places they might go — I’ve gone to all of them. I’ve gone to the houses of their friends,” he said. “I’ve reported them missing to the MPD (Maui Police Department), to the FBI. I’ve been showing their pictures.”

Baclig, who is staying with friends in Kahului on the northern flank of the island, holds out hope as he searches.

Maybe in their haste to flee, none had the time to grab their cellphones — which might explain why Baclig has yet to get a call. Maybe they are looking for him, too, and unsure about his whereabouts.

Amid anguish and uncertainty, and as he nears the end of his efforts, he continues to pray for help.

“Lord, guide me in everything,” he wrote Thursday on Facebook. “I don’t know what to do.”

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