|At Morgue, Ceaselessly
Sifting 9/11 Traces
By DAN BARRY
Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle
of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt
Drive signals the forward movement of a
city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers
hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to
the dead whose remains are contained in
The trailers hummed as time separated the
city from the 11th of September: as the
smoking mountain of what had been the
World Trade Center became a yawning hole;
as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted
through on a Staten Island landfill; as
commemorative services caused heads to
bow. They hummed and they continue to hum,
a mantra-like reminder that talk of
closure is premature.
The trailers' contents are in the custody
of Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, the chief
medical examiner of New York City, who for
13 years has explained the city's deaths
to its living. His duties now include the
historic challenge of trying to identify
the nearly 20,000 body parts carried to
his agency's bleak, even forbidding
The human remains recovered at the
disaster site and the landfill all came to
an open-air bay on the East 30th Street
side of the medical examiner's building on
First Avenue in Manhattan. In close and
hectic surroundings, they were examined by
a succession of experts - the pathologist,
the forensic dentist, the fingerprint
analyst, the DNA specialist - all in
search of something distinguishable, from
an inscribed wedding ring to a set of
The remains were then carried across 30th
Street to the white tent, where they were
received with a preacher's brief prayer
and then stored while others worked to try
to attach a name to them.
Today, more than 10 months after the
terrorist attack, the remains of 1,229 of
the estimated 2,823 victims, or nearly 44
percent, have been identified through
laboratory analyses, computer wizardry and
old-fashioned detection. More than 500
identifications have been made through DNA
alone: for one victim, nearly 200 pieces
have been identified, while for others,
there was a single shard of bone.
Amid the investigative swirl - of trying
to match thousands of victims with six
times as many body parts - the medical
examiner's office has made a few
misidentifications. In one case, there was
a folder mix-up. In another, a toothbrush
collected for DNA was mislabeled.
"We are fallible," Dr. Hirsch
said. "But when we have made
mistakes, we've modified our
procedure to avoid repeating that
The story of the medical examiner's
continuing response to Sept. 11 is largely
unknown, partly because of Dr. Hirsch's
privacy concerns, and partly because of
his office's aura. It is, of course, the
Many of his employees are so consumed by a
mission with no clear end that they have
barely reflected on their experiences. In
recalling certain moments, several cried.
A central part of their job, after all, is
to tell all that they know, no matter how
disturbing, to the victims' relatives.
In an anteroom with a water-stained
ceiling, people have asked where the
remains of their loved ones were found.
One staff member, Shiya Ribowsky, has had
to jab his finger at a grid map of Lower
Manhattan and gently say: "Here. And
here. And here. And here."
Usually, the people summoned to that sad
little room have at least had something to
bury. The remains of more than half
the victims have not been identified, in
part because hundreds died without leaving
a trace. The hope is to identify 2,000
victims, or about 71 percent. "That's
been our whisper number around here,"
Dr. Hirsch said.
Firsthand experience informs these
tempered expectations; he was there when
the first tower fell. Hours later,
bloodied and bruised, he pulled from his
pocket a fistful of pulverized concrete -
a sign of all that had been reduced to
dust. That dust, mixed with coins, rests
now in a glass bowl on his desk.
Dr. Hirsch, 65, smokes a pipe and wears
suspenders; he is fastidious and reserved.
But when he discusses his office's
time-consuming efforts to identify the
dead - which so far have cost $24 million
- his emotions rise a tick or two.
"It's important to people and we're
here to serve people," he said.
"If a government can't do that, what
good is it?"
That is why the medical examiner's office
has begun to preserve the 16,000 body
parts that have not been identified or
returned to family members. One by one,
the remains are being air-dried in a kind
of giant dehumidification chamber to stem
the decomposition and protect the DNA.
That is why Amy Zelson Mundorff was at her
familiar post in the open-air bay the
other day, examining a piece of a spine
while others jotted notes. And why Dr.
Zoran Budimlija was at a steel table
beside her, scraping a piece of bone in
search of material that might yield
Their efforts were part of the agency's
resolve to re-examine every body part; as
Mr. Ribowsky put it, "to see
September's remains with July eyes."
The double-checking has already paid
dividends in identification, the coin of
the medical examiner's isolated realm.
Ms. Mundorff recently found a mandible
imbedded inside a torso. A discovery that
might have caused gasps elsewhere elicited
only cheers in an ugly building on First
Avenue, where a hum is always at the door.
Danger in the 'Kill Zone'
As soon as word arrived that a jetliner
had struck the World Trade Center's north
tower, Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues
prepared to receive the dead.
While other staff members set in motion a
well-rehearsed disaster plan, Dr. Hirsch
and six aides drove to the scene to
establish a temporary morgue. And when the
first tower roared and fell, shooting
steel and concrete through the air, the
doctor and his contingent found themselves
well within the "kill zone."
One investigator broke her leg so severely
that the bone was exposed; another
suffered a blow to the back of the head
and took months to recover. Ms. Mundorff,
33 and barely 5 feet tall, was thrown
headfirst into a wall. Dr. Hirsch was
hurled to the ground, badly cutting his
hand and bruising much of his reed-thin
Back at the office, staff members tried to
sift fact from rumor. "We shut down
30th Street, got the refrigerated trucks
coming, the forensic dentists arrived, and
so on," said David R. Schomburg, the
director of medicolegal investigations.
"But there were these rumors, false,
of a ferry bound for Staten Island with
His staff soon learned that Dr. Hirsch had
survived, but still, the sight of him that
afternoon was breathtaking. Covered from
head to toe with white dust, he was a
ghost with horrible stories to tell.
For his aides, it was an unforgettable
moment. Here was Dr. Charles Hirsch, the
man who had resurrected the country's
largest and busiest medical examiner's
office - handling more than 25,000 deaths
and more than 700 homicides a year - from
the mire of mismanagement; whose
leadership had persuaded others to marry
their career paths to his. Here he was,
awed and covered with the dust of others.
"I had a surge of emotion that I
can't describe," recalled Dr. Mark
Flomenbaum, the first deputy chief medical
examiner. "I'm in New York because
he's in New York. If he were in Chicago,
I'd be in Chicago. It was horrible."
Dr. Hirsch emptied his pockets and had a
medical examiner's epiphany. "If
reinforced concrete was rendered into
dust," he said later, "then it
wasn't much of a mystery as to what would
happen to people."
It was evening before the first body
arrived, one of the very few that would be
found intact: the Rev. Mychal Judge, a
Franciscan and the well-known New York
Fire Department chaplain. His case was
called DM-01-00001, with DM standing for
Mr. Ribowsky, now the deputy director of
investigations, grabbed a thick ledger
book and started to log descriptions and
case numbers for the flood of body parts
that was only beginning. "Each piece
had to be treated as its own person,"
The book's entries came to reflect the
deluge of body parts that would last for
many months. The seventh entry says
"unk: male," or
"unknown"; the 18th, "left
hand"; the 19th, "body
fragment." There are rows of entries
that say, simply, "unk: fragment -
bone," or "skeletal
And when that book ran out of space more
than four months later, on Jan. 22, the
13,486th entry was made - "unk:
fragment - bone" - and a second book
was begun. Its first entry, for the
13,487th body part, reads: "unk:
fragment - bone."
The agency's officials had put together an
elemental but effective operation. An
escort, usually a police officer, would be
assigned to follow a body part as it
passed before the eyes of a pathologist, a
forensic dentist, a detective from the
missing-persons bureau, a DNA analyst. It
would not leave the escort's sight until
it was stored in one of the refrigerated
trailers parked in the weed-covered lot
that is known as Memorial Park.
The never-ending flow of remains shocked
even the most experienced in death's
"In one day," Dr. Flomenbaum
recalled, "I was seeing more
homicides than in my 11 years in this
Late that first night, stacks of dental
charts, X-rays and photographs began to
pile up in the lobby. They had been left
by police officers, firefighters and
others who thought that the medical
examiner's office could use them.
Follow the Forensic Trail
Then came what seemed like a timeless
blur: of the unthinkable becoming mundane,
of the constant engagement in what Dr.
Hirsch calls the "dialogue with the
dead." The nature of the disaster had
already answered some of the basic
questions that a medical examiner asks
when standing over the dead, such as where
and when the death had come. But, he said,
there was still that first question:
"Who are you?"
People became obsessed with that question,
among them Ms. Mundorff. The forensic
anthropologist, her eyes blackened by her
head injury, became the traffic director
of a triage center that mushroomed onto
East 30th Street. She examined every body
part for something distinctive - an old
fracture, a steel screw in a hip, a
clothing label - sealed it in a bag, and
wrote in indelible ink what she had found.
Then, she directed its escort where to go.
For example, "Table 1 needs a
case," she would say.
A few yards away, Dr. Jeff Burkes oversaw
a team of forensic dentists who, whenever
possible, were accounting for every tooth
in a jaw, then creating new dental charts.
As soon as dental charts that could be
used for comparisons arrived, he said,
"We got hits almost immediately,
And down the corridor, as many as 40
people were jammed into a conference room,
coordinating death certificates and
fielding frantic calls from family
members, while also trying to control the
overflow of vital information. The noise
in the small room would become so loud
that Mr. Ribowsky occasionally called a
timeout and asked everyone to take a long,
Concentration was needed for the proper
release of remains. "Somebody would
have to go out and physically view the
remains," recalled Chuck Smith, a
medical investigator who came from Baton
Rouge, La., to help. "This was to
make certain that what we were releasing
was the same thing that was detailed on
the intake sheet."
The system was nearly flawless, but
anything short of perfection meant pain
for family members. Out of thousands there
were three or four misidentifications,
including the odd case of two firefighters
from the same firehouse with the same
anomaly in the same neck vertebra.
In another case, a forensic dentist gave
the wrong folder to a person in the
conference room. As a result, Dr. Hirsch
said, "We changed the policy and
required the sign-off of two dentists to
make an identification."
So much was being done for the first time
that people joked that they were
transforming a Cessna into a 747 - in
flight. There was the assembly of a
comprehensive database that, with a click
of a mouse, could call up a photograph of
a body part or show the latest
conversation with a family member. There
was the coordination of the services of
hundreds of people summoned to New York by
th e federal program, Dmort, which is
short for Disaster Mortuary Operational
Response Teams. There was the start of a
groundbreaking practice to issue death
certificates without bodies, eliminating a
source of pain for grieving families.
All the while, the people of New York City
continued to have fatal accidents, to kill
one another, to die. In November, a
jetliner crashed in the Rockaways, killing
265 people; Dr. Flomenbaum and the 31
medical examiners under his supervision
were now handling two large-scale
disasters on top of their normal workload.
"Death did not take a holiday
otherwise," Dr. Hirsch said.
But it was the World Trade Center disaster
that never seemed to end. Trucks fresh
from the disaster site and the landfill
kept pulling up to the open bay, where the
presence of police officers and
firefighters - looking for lost friends -
had long since breached the building's
traditional wall of dispassion.
"They knew these people," Ms.
Mundorff said. "They'd say, `Oh, he
just got married,' or `Oh, he has three
kids.' It's not like this was Bosnia. This
was our home turf, and it was hard."
One day in the first month, Deputy
Commissioner Thomas J. Brondolo took a
walk. He had not left the medical
examiner's office since the disaster -
except to sleep in his car - and now he
saw for the first time the photographs of
the missing that covered the walls and
windows of the city. They were snapshots,
from vacations and weddings, of the people
now coming to his place of business in
pieces the color of earth.
"The farther and farther I got from
the office," he said, "the
harder and harder it became."
DNA Takes Time and Patience
For a while, patience was about all that
the DNA specialists on the sixth floor
could bring to their agency's mission. To
make identifications, they had to compare
the DNA being extracted from the body
parts with DNA taken from the victims'
personal effects or their blood relatives.
The collection of that material took time.
The nature of the disaster also
complicated matters. "It was like a
huge mortar and pestle," Dr. Robert
Shaler, the director of forensic biology,
said. "There were many, many small
fragments, commingled remains, many pieces
from a single person."
While the state police set out to collect
things to compare - from toothbrushes to
cheek swabs - Dr. Shaler worked the
telephone to find the best databases and
analysts in the country. A
first-generation computer system was set
up and, on Oct. 24, the medical examiner
made its first identification through DNA.
But by early January, Dr. Shaler received
confirmation that the chaotic nature of
the collection process in the first days
had created doubt about the usefulness of
To ease the pain and confusion for
relatives being asked again to provide DNA
samples and personal items, the medical
examiner established a DNA hot line that
allowed them to check on the status of
their loved one's case. So far the hot
line has received more than 6,300 calls.
More than 5,000 cheek swabs have been
taken from blood relatives, and more than
15,000 personal articles have been
collected. Some items, like a victim's
teddy bear or pillow case, have been of no
value, while others - including 1,400
toothbrushes, 140 razors and 126
hairbrushes - have yielded valuable DNA.
Today, the responsibility for making
further identifications in the most
ambitious forensic investigation in
history rests almost entirely with Dr.
Shaler and his staff. "Here on
out," Dr. Hirsch said, "any
additional identifications will likely be
Assistance is coming from across the
country. In Springfield, Va., the Bode
Technology Group is pulverizing bone
samples to extract DNA. In Rockville, Md.,
the Celera Genomics Group is trying to
trace the maternally inherited DNA from
the remains. In Dallas, the GeneScreen
division of Orchid Biosciences Inc., will
be analyzing DNA samples that have so far
But the work also continues in the medical
examiner's DNA laboratory. There, on a
recent day, boxes of bones lined the wall
of a walk-in cooler, boxes of personal
effects were stacked in the hall, and
binders with labels like
"Muscle/Soft Tissue" lined book
shelves. In one corner, technicians were
reading data from a sophisticated computer
system that did not exist on Sept. 11,
while in another corner, a robotic machine
processed liquefied profiles of DNA.
And on a counter sat a plastic tube,
inside of which was a small piece of bone
and tissue, just recovered at the
landfill. Preparations were already being
made to somehow unlock its mysteries.
Families Are Grateful
The mysteries of death can prey on the
minds of those who lost loved ones in the
World Trade Center collapse. They have
struggled with loss, waded through months
of misinformation and, in many cases, been
denied the age-old ritual of burying the
But Jennie Farrell, a leader of a family
group called Give Your Voice, said that
many have been heartened by the
unvarnished facts provided by perhaps the
most daunting government agency in the
city, the medical examiner's office.
"There's a sense of comfort when
you're given the information that you
need," she said.
Several months ago, in November, Dr.
Hirsch was heckled during a meeting with
family members, who thought it was
insensitive of him to say that many
victims had been vaporized. Now, Ms.
Farrell said, his agency is widely
applauded for its dealings with family
members: gently explaining the drying-out
process, sharing hopes for DNA
breakthroughs, giving choices about when -
or if - to be notified when another piece
of a loved one is identified.
Most of all, she said, the agency provides
details that demystify.
When an identification is made, the family
members are escorted to that room off the
lobby and told that there are difficult
things to discuss. They usually jot down
every word in notebooks, and they often
ask whether their loved one jumped from a
window, or was burned by fire. Sometimes
they have preconceived stories - of a
husband dying while rescuing others - for
which they seek confirmation.
"There is this kind of
surrealness," said Katie Sullivan, a
member of D.M.O.R.T. from Portland, Ore.,
who has counseled more than 100 families.
"We'll bring out the grid of the
site, they'll be taking notes. And in a
couple of minutes we're talking about this
horrible, unthinkable event, and what
happened to the bodies after they died.
You kind of float out of yourself
She added, quoting Dr. Hirsch, "But
we're the caretakers of their
It is unclear what will happen to the many
remains never identified, or claimed. It
is likely that they will be interred
beneath a memorial of some kind. For now,
there is a prayer service every Friday
afternoon for family members under that
tent just off the F.D.R. Drive.
On a recent Friday, with rain beating down
against the chalk-white canvas, two
preachers led half-dozen people in prayer.
Then a clerk from the medical examiner's
office sang a hymn, his powerful voice
soaring above the pervasive hum.
At the end of the service, the preachers
asked people to place lighted lanterns at
the foot of each of the 16 trailers. The
medical examiner for the City of New York
did as he had been asked, then disappeared
as quietly as he had entered.
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