Forensic Case Files: 9/11—Part 2: Identifying Human Remains

Comparison points of ridge characteristics for fingerprint analysis.

Last week, we talked about the challenges of handing a mass fatality disaster such as 9/11, including the collection of human remains. This week, we’ll cover how those remains can lead to victim identification.

The path toward identification starts with the type of sample recovered. When the body is intact, presumptive identification can be made via visual ID or by directly associated personal effects (i.e. a driver’s license with matching photo found in the pocket of the victim). Confirmatory identification can then be made using one of several methods, including DNA matching, odontology or fingerprinting.

Sadly, considering the nature of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC), the overwhelming majority of remains could not be identified so easily. Officially, the New York Medical Examiner lists all of the deaths at WTC that day as ‘homicide due to blunt force trauma.’ This includes those who died in the collapse of the towers, as well as those that fell or jumped to their deaths after being driven out by flame and smoke (these deaths are not classified as suicides since they were not considered voluntary acts).

Because forensic anthropologists specialize in fragmented, burned, decomposed, and comingled remains, they are at the forefront working on victim identification. Well-known author Dr. Kathy Reichs was one of many forensic anthropologists who took time away from their own professional careers to help identify remains found at Ground Zero following the attacks.

For most victims, since only fragments of their bodies were recovered, identification had to be inferred from one or more of the following attributes:

  • Personal surface markers like scars or tattoos.
  • Forensic anthropologists’ estimate of age at time of death, race, sex, and stature.
  • Description of antemortem (before death) characteristics, including evidence of disease or healed fractures.
  • Discovery of prosthetics or surgical hardware (including serial numbers).
  • Documentation of perimortem (at the time of death) trauma supporting cause of death.
  • Fingerprint examination: Qualified personnel can collect antemortem latent prints from the homes or personal effects of suspected victims for comparison to recovered remains. Once identification is made, a second qualified examiner must confirm the match.
  • Odontology: Comparison of recovered dental fragments to antemortem dental x-rays and charts. These matches can be difficult because dental remains may be fragmented; extremely fragile dental remains may require onsite radiography before transportation to morgue.
  • Radiology: Comparison of antemortem x-rays to post-mortem (after death) x-rays and skeletal fragments in order to match healed fractures.
  • DNA comparisons: DNA remains the best method of identification, especially when other physical traits such as fingerprints, physical stature, distinctive characteristics and dental features have been destroyed. The challenge in DNA matching can lie in finding a reference sample for comparison. More detailed information on the subject can be found in one of our earlier posts: Forensics 101: DNA Profiling for Identification.

In a perfect world, every victim would be identified, finally bringing closure to the families. But the task of identifying the victims at the WTC has proven to be extremely difficult in many cases. Join us next week as we close our series on 9/11 as we explore the challenges investigators have faced in trying to put names to the dead.

Photo credit: Vince Alongi

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