Identification of 9/11 remains wraps up

A New York City police officer looks out at the wreckage of the destroyed World Trade Center, on Sept. 15, 2001. Tom Sperduto / USCG via Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The medical examiner’s office has largely ended its effort to identify the remains of those killed at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving more than a thousand victims unidentified.

“We’ve finished making identifications for the World Trade Center,” Robert Shaler, director of forensic biology at the medical examiner’s office, told the New York Daily News in a story published Wednesday.

The forensic effort failed to identify any remains of more than 1,100 victims, or almost half of the 2,749 who died there.

Since the attacks 3½ years ago, the medical examiner’s office identified nearly 1,600 victims, although progress had slowed considerably in recent months. Since September, only eight victims have been identified. A few inconclusive tests are still pending that could yield a couple of more identifications, Shaler told the newspaper.

The city has about 10,000 unidentified bone and tissue fragments that cannot be matched to the list of the dead.

The medical examiner’s office will contact all victims’ families who asked to be notified when the forensic effort ended.

Shaler has said that the DNA effort could be reopened if new scientific processes were developed.

“If three years from now somebody comes up with something ... that really looks like it’s going to work, then we’re going to be poised to go after it,” he told The Associated Press in 2003.

Some identifications were made quickly in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. To identify smaller remains, the medical examiner had to rely on DNA matching, drawing results from shreds of bone and tissue. But tests were often not possible because the DNA was too damaged by heat, humidity, and the passage of time.

“I’m still driven by the families,” Shaler said in 2003. “When I see these people, they look at me with eyes that say, ’Did you find her yet?’ But when you’re only turning out a couple a week or four, five a month, it’s hard.”

In most cases, victims whose remains were not identified have been legally declared dead by the court anyway, based on documentation that they were at the trade center or on the hijacked airplanes.