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Unidentified Remains

The ongoing task of cataloguing hell.

As soon as the second plane hit, the NYPD began treating the area around the World Trade Center as a crime scene. It was standard procedure. The incident would fall under the “mass fatality” protocol—ten or more people killed. That meant, among other things, getting the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ready to collect bodies for identification. A group of forensic scientists, including the city’s chief medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, loaded into a white Ford Excursion and drove downtown, toward the smoking Towers. Robert Shaler, then the director of OCME’s Forensic Biology Department, stayed behind.

“How many dead?” Shaler asked Hirsch.

“We don’t know.”

“The DNA lab will be ready,” Shaler promised.

Fifty-six minutes later, the South Tower fell. OCME now had to contend with thousands of victims’ bodies torn, burned, fused, pulverized, and intermingled, sometimes on the molecular level, with everything from jet fuel to office supplies to one another. Eventually, some 1.8 million tons of World Trade Center material, still hiding untold human remains, would be moved to the Fresh Kills landfill. Forget a crime scene. Working on this would be like cataloguing hell.

On the corner of East 30th Street and First Avenue stands a homely 1960 building of blue-glazed brick. It is home to New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. A block away, next to the FDR Drive, stands a tent-covered OCME facility that is now the closest thing 1,121 victims of 9/11 have to a tomb. No plaque or sign marks the place. In official conversation, OCME staffers use the name Memorial Park, but the families call it simply 30th Street, as in “my son is still on 30th Street.” Inside, in a sterile storage room, dehydrated to slow the DNA damage, lie 9,006 pieces of bone—some of them in chips the size of, in the words of OCME’s assistant director Mark Desire, “a Tic Tac.” In the decade since 2001, the office has identified the remains of 1,629 victims, just short of 60 percent of the official total death toll of 2,753. Five scientists attached to the project still process 400 samples a month in the hope that new technologies will yield another elusive I.D. When they’ve gone through the pool of material, roughly every fifteen months, they do it again.

In the beginning, NYPD scientists had several ways of identifying victims. Seventeen were recognized by “remains viewed”; 305 by fingerprints; 25 by photo; 78 by personal effects; 534 by dental or body X-rays; six by tattoos. When those options weren’t available, the only method left to put names to the remains was to analyze DNA obtained from bone.

At the time, the most advanced way to pull usable DNA from dry bone was to pulverize it. Behind the blue brick at 30th Street, dozens of scientists sat at their tables with hammers and pestles and mortars, smashing and then grinding human bone by hand. In the winter of 2001, with fewer than 500 victims identified and pressure mounting to identify more, Hirsch made the gaffe of his career. Speaking with the families of the dead, he suggested that many of the victims had been “vaporized.”

Contamination made the work more difficult still. The disaster had turned up human bones that were over 100 years old, as well as animal bones traceable to rats, pigeons, and T-bone steaks from Windows on the World. In many cases, two or more people’s remains were smashed together. For reference, the OCME had developed so-called antemortem profiles for most of the known victims, pulling DNA from things like toothbrushes and swabbing living relatives. Each new postmortem DNA profile got checked against 17,000 antemortem samples. Even that didn’t solve the problem. The World Trade Center disaster is an “open-manifest mass fatality,” meaning the actual number of its victims may never be established (there could have been people on the ground with no relatives to declare them missing, or illegal immigrants not in the system). “We have DNA profiles from remains that don’t match anything on the reference side,” Desire says.

In early 2005, the OCME’s identification work was officially paused. “We’ve exhausted all the DNA technology as it exists today,” the office’s spokesperson told CNN. Just a little more than half the remains the office had at the time—10,190 of the 19,916—had been identified. The victims’ families received contrite letters, including a promise that the work would continue as technology advanced [U1].

But that September, more remains were found atop the Deutsche Bank building. Most were small enough to have been raked into the rooftop gravel. By the following spring, 783 new remains had been found there. A machine designed to sift through the World Trade Center debris, meanwhile, had been fine-tuned. The city resifted the debris in 2007 and again in 2010, processing some 844 cubic yards of new rubble excavated during the reconstruction of West, Vesey, and other nearby streets. Those efforts yielded 72 new bone fragments. The OCME also began using liquid nitrogen and ultrasound “sonicator” machines to freeze and shatter the bone. In 2007, the effort moved from 30th Street to a state-of-the-art fifteen-story OCME building four blocks away. What was once a pile of folders in an OCME office marked “DM/RM” (“Disaster Manhattan/Reference Samples Manhattan”) was now the business of one of the world’s most advanced forensics superlabs.

Still, additional identifications have proven difficult to obtain. From 2006 to 2010, just 25 new I.D.’s were made. So far in 2011, OCME has made two, one in early May and one in late August. The first victim was a 32-year-old white man whose name the family, despite the intervening years, refused to release. The second was Ernest James, a 40-year-old Marsh & McLennan employee.

The current plan for the unidentified remains is to entomb them at the subterranean 9/11 museum, with three distinct levels of access: for the public, for the families, and for the scientists who will presumably keep up the I.D. work. But that approach has upset some of the victims’ families. “I’d rather have it above-grade,” Jim Riches, a former FDNY deputy chief who lost his son in the attacks, recently told me. “The museum closes at seven or eight o’clock. If I’m driving by and it’s above-grade, I can at least see it, say a prayer, leave a couple of flowers.” Riches, along with fifteen or so other victims’ relatives, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the addresses of the rest of the families, in an attempt to organize an informal vote. If successful, their effort would significantly slow down the completion of the museum. “If it were up to me, I would rather keep [the remains] in the medical examiner’s office than have them interred 70 feet below ground,” Jim McCaffrey, whose brother-in-law was killed on 9/11, told me. “That’s how disrespectful their plan is.”

One way or another, Riches said, he wants the DNA work to continue. “We recovered my son March 25, 2002, but it wasn’t all of him. I’ve gotten a couple of phone calls since. They found some other parts. I’m sure there are other families that would say, ‘You know what, leave ’em right there.’ That’s up to them. But, you know, I buried a part of my son in Queens. I would want to bring all his parts back to Queens and put them all in one place.”


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