Taking possession of the dead

Morgue: New York's medical examiner is no stranger to the confusion of disasters, but Sept. 11 took his team too close to death.

October 27, 2002|By Robert Lee Hotz | Robert Lee Hotz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - When the first hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center, Dr. Robert Shaler was holding his regular Tuesday morning staff meeting to plan the workload for the 90 forensic experts under his direction at New York's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

After almost 14 years in the medical examiner's office, Shaler is no stranger to the confusion that fogs the circumstances of violent death.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, led by Dr. Charles Hirsch, is the country's busiest, handling 25,000 deaths a year, including 3,300 homicides and sexual assaults. Hirsch recruited Shaler to found the forensic biology laboratory.

As conflicting reports filtered back to the medical examiner's office on Sept. 11, a seven-member emergency morgue team mobilized and headed downtown, in accordance with the city's long-standing plans for any air disaster.

Sobering scale

It was no surprise when they left without asking anyone from the forensic DNA team to go with them. They were never included in disaster drills. Within hours, the sobering scale of the World Trade Center disaster emerged. Early reports placed the dead at 6,700 or more. Morgue experts were braced to handle as many as a million body parts. The numbers of the missing and murdered continued to fluctuate for months.

In all, they would find 19,924 body parts.

For nine months, human remains recovered from the trade center site or culled from rubble trucked to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island were delivered to the open-air bay by the side entrance of the medical examiner's office.

There, under a canopy on a cul-de-sac blockaded by six metal barricades and under police guard, Shaler and his staff took possession of the dead.

As the only full-time forensic anthropologist on the medical examiner's staff, Amy Zelson Mundorff was the first to examine remains when they came through the door, the last one to sign them out when they finally were identified.

Pathologists, dental experts and fingerprint analysts searched each new set of remains for identifying marks or features that might help distinguish it from the other dead - a distinctive tattoo, a pattern of freckles, a healed bone fracture, a birthmark, a wedding ring.

Each piece was cataloged, tagged with a bar code and measured.

"We would go through the bags and sort out the cases," she said. "Anything that was not attached to something else got its own case number. We would take the time, if we could, to put the pieces back together, if we could make it into one case."

She kept at it 12 hours a day, six days a week.

For many emergency workers, the difference between the quick and the dead at the World Trade Center was uncomfortably close.

On that Tuesday morning, Mundorff had rushed to the World Trade Center shortly after the first aircraft crashed into the building, as part of the disaster team dispatched to assess the scene.

Pressing forward with other emergency workers, she was caught in the tumbling outwash of debris from the fall of the South Tower. Slammed against a wall, she suffered a concussion and broken ribs. Rubble and broken glass slashed her legs. One of her co-workers fractured his skull.

`We were too close'

For the first month, she looked at sets of remains through two blackened eyes.

"We were too close," she said. "When I look at the cases on the table, I feel lucky."

As Mundorff and her colleagues sorted through bag after bag, it became clear that the mainstays of forensic identification - detailed skeletal analysis, dental X-rays and comparison with existing medical records - were all but useless.

There rarely was enough bone to make a recognizable skeleton; no faces that could be reconstructed; few teeth to be matched to dental records; even fewer whole fingers to print.

"So many of our traditional anthropological techniques are obsolete in a mass disaster like this," Mundorff said.

Robert Lee Hotz is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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