Identifying 9/11 victims pushes limits

Experts have little success with small DNA samples


Again and again, the standard DNA tests came up negative on a 3-inch-by-2-inch piece of muscle recovered from the World Trade Center site, and a year after the 2001 attacks, forensics experts were stymied. Yet now the scrap has been linked to a firefighter from Midtown Manhattan, enabling his death to be confirmed and giving his wife and two children some sense of finality.

Solving brutally difficult cases like that one required an investment of two extra years and millions of dollars by the medical examiner's office in New York, which sought out and used DNA identification technologies that had never been tried before.

That labor - which is coming to a close, at least for now - is why families of victims of the 2001 attacks are gathering in New York today for an interfaith service where they plan to thank the medical examiner, Charles S. Hirsch, and his staff.

Small results

But as it turns out, the identification of the firefighter is one of relatively few that resulted from this extra effort to push beyond the limits of traditional DNA testing.

So far, 58 percent of the victims of the trade center attack - 1,592 - have been identified. But only about 111 were positively identified during what staff members at the medical examiner's office agree was an excruciatingly difficult and at times frustrating two years when it tried the new testing methods.

"We were looking at thousands of different bits of information and continually going down dead ends, and often not coming up with the answers we needed," said Dr. Robert C. Shaler, the office's forensic biologist, who led the effort.

Scraps of remains

Given the extraordinary violence of the collapse of the towers and the relentless fires that burned for months afterward at Ground Zero , nearly everyone involved - city officials, the families, the scientists laboring over only the tiniest scraps of remains - considers the identification effort a major achievement.

But the work in New York has also served to demonstrate just how difficult it is, however intense the determination or high-profile the job, to ignore scientific barriers and apply new technologies.

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