Forensic Case Files: 9/11—Part 1: Mass Fatality Incidents

The events of September 11, 2001 will forever remain a watershed moment in history—life before vesus life after that day. For North Americans, it marked the end of a more relaxed way of life and the beginning of heightened security and wariness of the world around us.  For most of us, it’s an event, like Kennedy’s assassination, that will forever be linked to what we were doing at the moment we heard the news.

In the past, Ann and I have considered looking at the recovery efforts assocated with the disaster because forensic anthropology remains a crucial part of victim identification to this day. But, at the same time, we’re very sensitive to the fact that this incident remains a very painful moment in time not just for Americans, but for the world as a whole since sixty other countries also lost citizens in the attack that day. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be looking at the incident from the perspective of managing a mass casualty and fatality incident of this magnitude, and continuing efforts at individual victim identification.

When the planes struck the two towers, significant damage was initially localized to seven or eight stories adjacent to the point of impact, caused by explosion, fire from the heavy load of airplane fuel, and the large size of the modern Boeing 767. The buildings’ collapse was initiated by the weakening and finally buckling structural systems due to the heat of the fire and the crushing static weight of the floors above. The South tower, the second hit, was actually the first to collapse because the plane struck a lower floor, resulting in greater weight above the site of impact.

The sheer volume of calls overloaded communications systems, making it difficult to contact those inside the buildings, including first responders. As a result, many in the North Tower were never aware that the South Tower had fallen, even though nearly thirty minutes passed before the North Tower itself collapsed. 2,753 people, including the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, perished in the tragedy.

The initial response was search and rescue in an attempt to recover anyone who might have survived the crushing collapse of either building. The instability of both the immediate scene and the surrounding buildings hampered rescue attempts and teams were called off repeatedly as concerns about the collapse of nearby buildings heightened; 7 World Trade Center collapsed later that afternoon as a result of the fires that started after the building was hit by debris from the North Tower. Only when the scene was stabilized were rescue workers allowed to return. Multiple hazards were also a concern throughout this phase, including an underground tank of diesel fuel, gasoline from several thousand cars buried in the underground parking lots, and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition in the U.S. Customs Service firing range on site. Sadly, in the days following the attack, only 11 survivors were pulled from the rubble. Some victims survived the collapse of the towers but rescue teams were unable to reach them in time.

Recovery teams formed bucket brigades, passing five-gallon buckets down lines to investigators who sifted through each to remove any evidence of human remains. ‘The Pile’ was then transferred to one of several landfill sites, including Fresh Kills on Staten Island. There, the debris was sorted once again, and any additional human remains and personal effects were collected. The majority of remains collected were recovered during the ten months following September 2001.

Salem Fire Department’s 9/11 memorial, including a steel girder from one of the towers.The New York City Office of Emergency Management was in charge of the recovery and cleanup. Keenly aware of the effect on the city of the specter of the wreck of the World Trade Center, they attempted to clean up the 130,000 tons of debris as quickly as possible. Inadvertently, this rapid cleanup caused some remains to be separated from personal effects which could be used to aid in victim identification, and further scattered the remains of dismembered bodies. Inadvertently, human remains may have been disturbed as remains and comingled effects became separated, or as associated remains became scattered. In 2005, the search was declared complete despite concerns raised by families of those still missing that the initial efforts had been too rushed or carelessly handled. But after the discovery of bone fragments on the roof of the nearby Deutsche Bank Building and in two manholes in 2006, a new investigation was launched and 1,500 additional remains were recovered.

Twelve years after the attack, the cleanup process continues. In just the last few years, over sixty truckloads of debris have been removed from the site. On April 1, 2013 two more skeletal fragments were discovered. Currently, 40% of the victims are still unidentified, so efforts to identify the missing and the dead will continue.

Next week, we’ll look at identification methods used following the attacks to identify the dead.

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