By Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien
Reuters) – As the first victims of the fires that scorched Maui are identified by authorities and family members, an early pattern has emerged: Many who perished were over the age of 70.
Scores more victims will be identified in the weeks and months to come. While the final list of fatalities will almost surely represent a broader cross section of ages, the deaths underscore that the elderly are at greater risk in fast-moving blazes.
Of 111 people confirmed dead, Maui County had only released the names of five victims as of Thursday afternoon: Melva Benjamin, 71; Robert Dyckman, 74; Buddy Jantoc, 79; Alfredo Galinato, 79; and Virginia Dofa, 90.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, people over the age of 65 face the greatest relative risk of dying in a fire: 2.6 times higher than that of the general population. Research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Fire Administration tie this trend among the elderly to greater frailty and difficulty escaping.
In Maui, family and friends posted the names and ages of victims on fundraising websites such as GoFundMe.com. Of 11 adults identified this way so far, the average age was 70.
Among them was Joseph Schilling, 66, Akiva Bluh said on GoFundMe.
“Joe passed while aiding in evacuating five elderly people in his housing complex. Joe passed as a HERO,” said Bluh, whose family called him Uncle Joe.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the stories shared through social media.
The fast-moving brush fire, fueled by wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour (130 kilometers per hour), raced down the slope of an extinct volcano and into the town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, destroying or damaging 2,200 buildings and causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.
Survivors have told harrowing tales of barely escaping the flames or fleeing into the Pacific Ocean, sometimes relating that they saw the elderly struggling to evacuate.
The Maui catastrophe may also have claimed the lives of children. A 7-year-old boy was among those named on GoFundMe. Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said recovery teams have found “remains that may be smaller than other remains … in other words, children.”
To help overwhelmed local officials identify and process remains, the U.S. government has deployed 75 experts including coroners, pathologists and X-ray technicians, said Jonathan Greene, a Health and Human Services official. He told reporters on Tuesday a portable morgue unit brought 22 tons of supplies and equipment, including mortuary examination tables.
Another GoFundMe post revealed how tragedy struck one family several times over.
Faaso and Malui Fonua Tone, ages 76 and 72, Salote Takafua, 46, and 7-year-old Tony Takafua were killed while attempting to flee the fire, according to relative Jasmine Domingo.
The blogging site Bloglimy.com said animal lover Franklin Trejos, 68, died trying to rescue his neighbor’s golden retriever.
The same site identified victim Carol Hartley, a 60-year-old scuba diving instructor and surfer who worked with children with Down syndrome. Her sister Donna Hartley, who lives in Alabama, told WALA television that Carol’s body could only be identified by her wristwatch.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Don Durfee and Cynthia Osterman)
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