Scientists still struggle to identify 9/11 remains

Aug 26, 2011 by Mariano Andrade
A photo released on 17 September 2001 by the New York City Office of Emergency Management shows smoke rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, New York, on 16 September. In a laboratory in the center of Manhattan scientists continue to struggle to put names to the remains of victims from the September 11, 2001 attacks, some 40 percent of which are still unidentified.

In a laboratory in the center of Manhattan scientists continue to struggle to put names to the remains of victims from the September 11, 2001 attacks, some 40 percent of which are still unidentified.

"It's not a because everybody has a death certificate. It's an ethical-moral decision," said Mechthild Prinz in the department of forensic biology at the city's Chief Medical Examiner office.

The names of the people who died in the explosions, fires and collapse in the Twin Towers on 9/11 are known, but the violence was so extreme that even a decade later it takes painstaking forensic work to match those identities to the human fragments found at the site.

The latest match made was just this week: Ernest James, who was 40 years old. He was the 1,629th victim identified out of 2,753 people killed at the World Trade Center, or 59 percent of the total.

Initially, traditional methods such as dental records, photographs and finger prints were used to identify the bodies and pulled from the rubble. But as the easier batches of remains were dealt with the gruesome task turned into something more akin to serious detective work -- and even that is not enough in many cases.

"We did collect 21,817 remains, so you can imagine obviously that a lot of people were fragmented in many different body parts. And since we haven't identified over a thousand people, some of them really disappeared," said Prinz, 53, who comes from Germany but has been working as a in New York since 1995.

Amid strict security and sanitation conditions, a team of five scientists continues to deal with 6,314 fragments of bones found in the World Trade Center area.

An AFP journalist was shown the work underway through a window in a door before being told to put on gloves and taken into a large room, where robots clean the remains before they are tested for DNA against a databank created by relatives of the deceased.

"I remember a case a few years ago which was a small piece of bone on the roof of the Deutsche Bank building. It was the size of a coin and we were able to identified someone who worked in the towers at that time," recalled Taylor Dickerson, a criminalist in the forensic biology department.

However in most cases the DNA found in the fragments turns out to be just another piece of a person already identified. As a result, the work is painfully slow: less than three dozen people have been identified since 2006.

Sometimes, DNA is found in bone fragments that cannot be matched to anyone in the databank -- either because relatives did not give samples or because the remains belong to an illegal immigrant who happened to be in the area at the time and was never registered.

Prinz said the work, for all its frustrations, is satisfying.

"It definitely was worthwhile to do it, because some of the families are really grateful," he said.

"I guess the biggest thing for me has been just understanding the impact our has on both the families and the community, the forensic community," Dickerson said. "I never expected to do that in my career."

Explore further: Schwarzenegger pushes Congress to save after-school funding

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Authorities covering brushfires too reliant on DNA

Nov 04, 2010

Authorities' reliance on DNA evidence has gone too far and is undermining commonsense approaches to forensic evidence according to Dr. Lyn Turney from Swinburne University of Technology.

MSU scientists turn tables on century-old murder

Jan 07, 2011

( -- It was one of the most infamous murders in British history: Hawley Crippen, a doctor from Michigan, was convicted and hanged in 1910 for murdering his showgirl wife and burying some of her remains in their ...

Hair color of unknown offenders is no longer a secret

Jan 03, 2011

The hair color of an unknown perpetrator who has committed a crime will soon no longer be a secret for forensic investigators. Erasmus MC scientists, in collaboration with their Polish colleagues, have discovered that DNA ...

Uncovering secrets from beyond the grave

May 05, 2009

The tools of his trade range from earthmovers and shovels to the finest brushes, surgical tweezers and dentists' mirrors -- and his job is to uncover secrets from beyond the grave.

Recommended for you

Destroyed Mosul artefacts to be rebuilt in 3D

6 hours ago

It didn't take long for the scientific community to react. Two weeks after the sacking of the 300 year-old Mosul Museum by a group of ISIS extremists went viral on Youtube, researchers from the ITN-DCH, IAPP ...

Boys plagiarise more than girls at school

7 hours ago

Research by the University of the Balearic Islands has analysed the phenomenon of academic plagiarism among secondary school students. The study, published in the journal Comunicar, confirms that this practi ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 29, 2011
and how quickly the 19 arab highjackers had their DNA matched within hours - tens years later and we still are ask to digest the NIST fairy tale of events.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.