updated 2/24/2005 5:24:40 AM ET 2005-02-24T10:24:40

A year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ronald Fazio’s family held a wake with a coffin full of keepsakes, knowing his remains might never be found in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Their fears have proved true.

The medical examiner’s office says it has exhausted all efforts to identify the remains of those killed at the trade center, confirming the heartbreaking truth for the many families who wanted something to bury.

In the 3½ years since the attacks, forensic scientists have identified the remains of nearly 1,600 of the dead. But the families are now being told that the limits of DNA technology have been reached, leaving more than 1,100 of the victims unidentified.

Caskets buried without bodies
For many of the families, any hope that their loved ones’ remains might be found had all but slipped away long ago. They buried caskets with photographs and mementos instead of bodies. On holidays, they visit gravestones that mark nothing but a spot in the earth.

In a cemetery near their New Jersey home, Fazio’s family buried photos of the family dog, sand from the Jersey shore and Fazio’s favorite treat, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

“It might seem like an artificial type of wake, but people there were connected to what was in that coffin as if it was my father,” Robert Fazio said.

A mangled credit card was the only trace of Ronald Fazio recovered in the more than 1.5 million tons of trade center rubble that rescue workers excavated for more than nine months. Out of nearly 2,800 victims, fewer than 300 whole bodies were recovered.

Nearly 20,000 pieces of bodies were found in the ruins — more than 6,000 small enough to fit in five-inch test tubes. The most matched to one person exceeded 200. More than 800 victims were identified by DNA alone.

In many cases, the fierce fires, the crushing debris and other factors prevented scientists from extracting usable DNA.

“I feel very gratified that we got as far as we did, given the quality of the DNA that we had to work with,” said Robert Shaler, director of forensic biology.

Nearly 10,000 unidentified parts have been freeze-dried and vacuum-sealed for preservation in case advances in forensic technology someday enable scientists to identify the remains.

The victims’ families praise the medical examiner’s office and the gentle way the staff handled the heartrending task. The medical examiner’s office said it started calling families a few weeks ago and will probably send letters by next month.

A confirmation
Some realized their loved ones’ remains would never be found.

Eric LaBorie, whose wife, Kathryn, was a flight attendant on one of the jets that crashed into the trade center, said she was working the first-class cabin and was probably at the front of the plane.

“With the impact and the jet fuel, I just kind of knew that she had vanished into the air,” said LaBorie, who lives in Providence, R.I. “I would have been really surprised if they did call me and tell me they found something.”

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