Sailors assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One (MDSU-1) discuss search and survey operations in Lahaina Harbor in Maui, Aug. 27, 2023. U.S. ARMY NATIONAL GUARD / SGT. LIANNE M. HIRANO

In Honolulu, Hawaii, Navy divers recently completed an extensive and non-intrusive underwater investigation at Lahaina Harbor as part of their ongoing efforts to respond to the Maui wildfires. A team of 21 divers from Pearl Harbor arrived in Maui last week in response to a request from the Maui Fire Department.

Initially, the Maui firefighters conducted a preliminary inspection of the harbor and discovered that the underwater environment, with wreckage and debris, presented more complexities than initially anticipated. In light of these challenges, they enlisted the assistance of Navy divers. The underwater surveys included the use of sonar mapping and video documentation to comprehensively assess the situation. Petty Officer 2nd Class Sephten Clevenger noted the complexity of the harbor, with approximately 20 partially intact vessels ranging from 10 to 35 feet in length, primarily submerged along the harbor’s edges.

Clevenger described the challenging conditions underwater, with boats piled on top of each other, making a meticulous and systematic search operation both more challenging and perilous. The divers conducted multiple survey dives, utilized sonar mapping technology, and documented their findings on video to better understand the hazards and establish viable strategies before initiating their search efforts.

The Navy divers not only provided valuable manpower support, enabling Maui authorities to focus on a broader open-water search area, but they also brought specialized surface-supplied diving equipment. This equipment significantly extended their underwater capabilities, allowing for dives lasting several hours, a substantial improvement over the typical 30 to 45 minutes achievable with standard scuba tanks.

While the Navy divers typically collaborate with the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) for the recovery of missing World War II and Vietnam troops and receive training in the retrieval of human remains, their primary role is not the identification of human remains. Instead, they search for anomalies in the environment and pass on such findings to DPAA forensic anthropologists for further examination and identification.

Clevenger shared a poignant moment during their operations when he discovered a cavity beneath a pier and found a bright white skull amid the ash, debris, and burnt logs below. This underscores the somber nature of their mission.

With the completion of the survey and a thorough search, the Navy diving team remains on standby to provide further assistance if requested by the state government. Kilchenstein emphasized that they have covered all they can without having to move substantial pieces of wreckage and debris.

As of August 29th, the response to the Maui wildfire involved 580 National Guardsmen, 133 Defense Department personnel, and 119 Coast Guardsmen who were actively engaged in the effort, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. U.S. Army Pacific was conducting nine missions in Maui, including mortuary affairs support, fuel distribution, and potable water distribution, as reported by Lt. Col. Devin Robinson. Additionally, the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division’s heavy expanded mobility tactical truck fuelers played a vital role in distributing fuel for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ temporary power operations, and Pacific Air Forces contributed equipment and personnel for the water-distribution mission of the task force.

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