PHILADELPHIA | As hope for survivors wanes, the New York City medical examiner’s office, police and federal investigators Wednesday began using a program in which families and friends can complete a lengthy identification form about anyone missing and feared dead in Tuesday’s terrorist attacks.
The questionnaire asks for specific information, including the type of clothing and jewelry the person had been wearing, whether they had scars from operations, and what their history of dental work was. Such details are needed for identification where bodies are badly damaged or only body parts are found.
Forensic specialists face a monumental task. Their job, which could take months, will dwarf any other identification effort in the country’s history, experts say. In fact, the remains of many of the thousands of people presumed dead may never be found.
Makeshift morgues and refrigerator trucks stood ready Wednesday to handle the corpses of the victims in New York City, but so far few have been recovered from the World Trade Center’s rubble.
Scores of experts from many states are heading to New York, hoping their work will help families and the rest of the country begin to heal.
“It’s an incredible task to get this working,” said Murray Marks, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Tennessee. “One has to think about how those people met their death _ burning, explosions, blunt force trauma. … Some of the remains will be scattered.”
Identifying people, he said, will take “astute attention to detail.”
“We’ve never had a situation like this one in New York,” said Robert Lyon, a forensic dentist from Elmira, N.Y., who has helped identify bodies from plane crashes, fires and building collapses.
“The number, the enormity of the numbers, will make for a tremendous task,” said Dr. Haresh Mirchandani, medical examiner for Philadelphia, who said he’s prepared to help identify bodies if needed.
Dentists may turn out to be the key players because teeth can withstand extreme forces and heat like that generated in the fires and collapse of the towers.
“In life, teeth can and may decay quite readily,” said Dr. Haskell Askin, a forensic dentist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is now working on the effort in New York City. “In death, teeth are remarkably well-preserved.”
After a 1987 plane crash that killed 156 people near Detroit, 130 of the victims were identified through dental records, said Dr. Philip Levine, a forensic dentist in Pensacola, Fla. After the Oklahoma City bombing, he said, dental records helped identify between 70 and 80 percent of the victims.
The technology in the field is advancing fast, said Mark Teirnan, an Oklahoma dentist trained in forensics who has volunteered in New York.
In the past, he said, if there was a plane crash, experts would have to lay out all the victims and one by one compare post-mortem dental exams to all the dental records of all missing people. Now, he said, experts must collect the victims’ “premortem” records and enter them into a computer. Then the forensic dentists will perform new dental exams and X-rays on any bodies they find and use the computer to compare the two sets.
The program that does these comparisons is an upgrade of one the army developed to assess casualties after a battle.
If dental records don’t work, other methods may yield clues, said Richard Jantz, who heads the program in forensic anthropology at the University of Tennessee. “There could be a lot of fragmentation of the bodies,” he said, in which case hip replacements or screws used in past surgeries may be helpful.
If bodies can’t be identified exactly, the anthropologists can approximate their age and determine their sex and race.
If all else fails, they may try to extract DNA, which they can compare to hairs or other bodily materials.
Forensics experts may also be able to use DNA from family members of the missing, performing what is called “reverse paternity.” As in ordinary paternity tests, similarities in DNA sequences indicate whether people are related.
But DNA is likely to be a last resort, say experts, because it is more time-consuming and expensive than other methods.
“It looks like such a daunting task,” said anthropologist Marks. His forensic colleagues have worked on mass graves in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in embassy bombings and ordinary plane crashes, but even those situations, he said, didn’t present anything like the challenge of this disaster. “What a nightmare.”
“This is the kind of case where there is going to be hundreds (of victims) without a shred left,” said Dr. Halbert Fillinger, a Montgomery County, Pa., coroner.
But those with expertise feel a sense of duty to do what they can. “What gets me through is knowing that by doing this I’m able to reunite the individual decedents with the family,” said forensic dentist Lyon. “That brings closure and helps the families begin the grieving process.”