9/11 lessons help with identification

November 18, 2005|By BRYN NELSON | BRYN NELSON,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- The unprecedented challenge of identifying the remains of Sept.11 victims has prompted a spate of recommendations proving valuable in the aftermath of other tragedies, according to members of an advisory panel issuing a new report.

"What this effort is really about is to return a tangible artifact of a loved one to a family who's missing someone," said Leslie Biesecker, a report co-author and senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Based on reports of missing persons, the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center claimed 2,749 lives. Of the 1,594 victims identified by the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner through this past Sept. 11, about 850 identifications were based solely on DNA comparisons.

But as Biesecker and other panel members report in the journal Science, forensic experts encountered daunting obstacles.

"At the time of the attack," the panelists write, "no infrastructure existed for rapid, effective victim identification in large-scale disasters" involving more than 1,000 fatalities. And unlike airline disasters, there was no list of victims to go by, resulting in initial estimates of 5,000 missing people.

In all, the medical examiner's office tallied 20,120 tissue fragments, many co-mingled with building materials and subjected to a fire that burned for more than three months and reached temperatures of more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The medical examiner's office often had to invent or modify existing forensic procedures while performing identifications, according to Biesecker, and it had to repeatedly explain the procedure to confused family members.

New brochures guiding families through the DNA identification process, based on the panel's recommendations, have been adopted by medical examiners throughout the country and in several other countries.

Bryn Nelson writes for Newsday.

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