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Robert Mann
Robert Mann

Robert Mann has helped in the recovery of some of the largest disasters around the world from 9/11 to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The professor of anatomy and pathology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) has now taken on assisting with the recovery efforts on Maui, where the worst wildfire in more than a century has left more than 100 people dead, and 800—1,000 people missing.

“It was unlike anything I really expected,” said Mann, who has worked at JABSOM for the last eight years and has been a lecturer at UH West Oʻahu for more than 10 years.

State officials called on Mann for his vast experience in helping families identify loved ones in some of the world’s largest disasters and tragedies.

“Even with all the mass disasters I’ve done and all, every single one of them is different. The Maui wildfire disaster certainly was different,” he said.

Complicated disaster scene

aerial of Lahaina fire damage
(Photo credit: Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources)

As a forensic anthropologist, Mann uses bones and bone fragments to help identify remains. The disaster on Maui is proving difficult. According to Maui County, the scope of the disaster scene in Lahaina is 2,170 acres. Mann said the temperatures from the inferno and the gusts from Hurricane Dora created challenges in the recovery and identification effort.

“This is not an airplane crash where you’ve got 20 people that are manifested on the airplane. This is a huge area, and the perimeters are extremely big,” Mann said. “One of the complicating factors would be the high winds. Those winds will move things that were at one point here and then end up being a hundred feet away.”

More on how to help Maui ʻohana and the Maui wildfires.

A team of forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists, dentists, radiologists, fingerprint technicians, DNA specialists, firefighters, police and FBI agents were all sent to aid in the recovery and identification efforts. While others were sifting through the disaster site looking for remains, Mann was one of three forensic anthropologists at the morgue, working with located remains, trying to make the connections to the identities that loved ones are desperately seeking.

“Forensic pathologists are not trained to identify bone fragments or tell you anything about it,” Mann said. “We will pick the bones up and offer insight. We can tell if something is a right ulna (forearm bone) or a left leg. This can then lead to identifying the age or biological sex of a victim. So although the dentists do the teeth, we do the bones, and the pathologists do the bodies, we work as a team.”

A long process ahead

Because of the sheer size of the disaster scene, Mann knows it may take years for some identities to be known. He says 9/11 victims are still being identified more than 20 years later.

Because this is in our own backyard, we want to do it right, and we’re going to do our best to continue to do the right thing.
—Robert Mann

“Others may need to be identified by DNA. Some of the badly burned remains are not going to yield DNA, but some of them will,” he said.

As the recovery and identification efforts may span years, Mann asks for patience. “I see the process continuing, and it’s not an easy process,” Mann said. “Nobody’s enjoying this, but there’s no other way that I know of to do it. It’s one step at a time, and you’re climbing this very tall ladder where the only way to get to the top, which will be the identification, will be one step at a time.”

Mann has called Hawaiʻi home since the 90s, so there’s an added reverence he has when assisting on Maui.

“This is in our own backyard,” he said. “This is home for many of the people who are working this. You run into people at the scene who lost somebody, and it’s a very personal thing for them. It becomes very personal for those of us working with them. Because this is in our own backyard, we want to do it right, and we’re going to do our best to continue to do the right thing.”

Specialized JABSOM lab

Mann’s osteology and forensic anthropology lab at JABSOM is the only one of its kind in the state. It assists in mass disasters like what we’re seeing on Maui, but it also educates doctors in bones and bone disease and trauma.

Hawaiʻi hadn’t had this kind of a lab until now,” Mann said. “So this is Hawaiʻi’s lab, and I hope every state in the United States has a forensic lab like this. I think we’re doing our best, and I think we’re getting to be a gold standard for the way skeletal labs are structured.”

—By Matthew Campbell

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