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NYTimes.com Article: Limits of DNA Research Pushed to Identify the Dead of Sept. 11

  • Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: Limits of DNA Research Pushed to Identify the Dead of Sept. 11
  • From: adam.honigman@bowne.com
  • Date: Mon, 22 Apr 2002 18:20:11 -0400 (EDT)

This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by adam.honigman@bowne.com.


Often long pieces like this don't get to out-of-town papers or media.  I'm forwarding it you because not a few friends of mine have submitted DNA samples to help identify family members lost in 9/11 - including the friends and families of a few of the gardener/bike messengers that we've missed since 9/11.  - Our hope is that that most of these guys took "French Leave" of their jobs before 9/11 and will soon be regaling us with stories of climbing mountains in Katmandu or surfing in South America...

Best wishes,
Adam Honigman 


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Limits of DNA Research Pushed to Identify the Dead of Sept. 11

April 22, 2002 



A right hand, a forearm and a clavicle, and the DNA they
carried, were all investigators had to identify the remains
of Timothy Stout, who worked on the 103rd floor of the
north tower of the World Trade Center. 

Two fingerprints and a dental pattern proved key to
confirming the death of David Suarez, who worked a few
floors below. 

A genetic analysis of a bone fragment determined the final
fate of John C. Hartz, who was on the phone with his wife
describing the horror of the first attack when the south
tower, where he worked, was struck by a second hijacked
plane. "I have never been able to understand why people
have been so intent on recovering bodies," said Mr. Hartz's
widow, Ellie. "Now I understand. It is a basic human need.
We are tactile." 

These confirmations, achieved in the last month, are each
scientific miracles made possible by the largest forensic
investigation in United States history, one that is
pressing the limits of biomedical research even as it
brings a painful mixture of relief and fresh grieving to
families. But these are just 3 out of 972 identifications
that investigators have made as of Friday. 

A third of the 2,824 victims of the World Trade Center
attack have now been identified, a number far beyond what
many had thought would be possible. The goal now, experts
involved in the effort say, is to use new scientific
techniques to identify half or even two-thirds of the
victims, despite the miserably deteriorated state of many
of the remains being pulled from ground zero. 

The endeavor spans the nation, from genetics laboratories
in Utah, Texas, Maryland and Virginia to law enforcement
bureaus in Washington and Albany; even a California
forensic statistician is helping. But the federally
financed job, of course, is centered in New York City, at
the World Trade Center site, where remains have been
meticulously collected, and at the medical examiner's
office, at 520 First Avenue in Manhattan, where 18
refrigerated trailers hold the evidence. 

To date, 18,937 body parts have been recovered, along with
287 whole bodies. Most of the first successes in
identifying victims have come through traditional resources
like fingerprints and dental records, and those techniques
are still yielding results. But because of the
extraordinary trauma involved in the towers' collapse, DNA
is often the only hope of matching remains to a name, a
family, a life story. In fact, through Friday, only 10
victims so far have been identified solely by visual

DNA, first used as a forensic tool in 1985, led to the
identification of all of the bodies in a Swissair plane
crash in 1998 and an EgyptAir plane crash in 1999, two
accidents in which jets plunged into the Atlantic. In the
days after the Sept. 11 attack, city officials announced
that they felt compelled to test each bit of human remains
that could be found. 

"This is an historic event of unprecedented magnitude, and
the question was if the scientific community could respond
to that need," said Mark D. Stolorow, executive director of
Orchid Cellmark, a genetics company. "The response has been
surprisingly swift. We are scientists, but we are also
American scientists." 

Progress has not come at an even pace. Only 2 of the 65
people aboard United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the
south tower, have been identified, according to city
records. By comparison, 182 of the 343 city firefighters,
who wore protective gear, have been identified. 

Since the day of the attack, the identification effort has
proceeded simultaneously on multiple tracks. Dental
records, details on any tattoos, engraved rings or other
unique items were collected by the police, in the hope that
traditional identification approaches might be sufficient.
But city investigators also started immediately to assemble
DNA from victims' families, who supplied toothbrushes,
razors, even lip balm used by a victim, which presumably
would contain his or her DNA. Cheek swabs from the victims'
relatives were also taken. 

Each person's DNA, or genetic code, consists of a string of
three billion "base pairs," or large molecules, represented
by the letters "A," "G," "C," and "T." Sequences of those
four molecules create the code for all human
characteristics, and variations in those sequences make one
person different from another. Those same variations also
allow DNA to be used like a fingerprint. 

To start this effort, the city relied on a well-proven DNA
technique, called Short Tandem Repeat, in which the
laboratories looked for 13 different markers in each sample
of human remains collected from ground zero, measuring the
size of each marker and assigning the equivalent of a
Social Security number to each fragment of remains. An
analysis would also be done on the 6,908 razor blades,
combs, toothbrushes and other personal items, and the 6,889
cheek swabs from victims' relatives. 

Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City and the Bode Technology
Group of Springfield, Va., handled most of this initial
work. Bode alone has been sent 12,000 bone samples, 5,500
soft tissue samples and 1,800 samples from family members.
The results are being sent back to the New York State
Police, and then the city medical examiner's office, where
staff members start on the difficult work of matching DNA
profiles from the remains with those from the family items
and confirming the accuracy of each step. 

This effort gradually started to produce significant
results: 57 DNA identifications in November, 69 in March
and 92 in April, as of Friday. But nothing is coming

The fires that burned for weeks after the towers fell were
so hot that even when bones were recovered, they were often
little more than ash. The moisture at the site and bacteria
caused further degradation. The result is that nearly half
of the first round of samples tested at DNA labs have come
back with incomplete profiles, city officials said. 

In as many as 700 cases, the medical examiner's office has
been unable to link a DNA profile that was isolated from a
piece of remains with any of the profiles established based
on the items supplied by the victim's families. Making the
matches has become almost an obsession for Dr. Robert
Shaler, the director of forensic biology with the city's
medical examiner's office. He finds himself at his office
at 5 a.m., at his computer, again and again, trying to make
just one more match. He wonders as he arrives for work:
"Can I make matches? Can I make matches?" 

Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said he already was amazed
at the success Dr. Shaler, and his boss, Dr. Charles S.
Hirsch, the city's chief medical examiner, have had. "I
honestly think on the evening of Sept. 11th, none of us who
observed it, saw it, watched it, were involved in it, ever
thought you would have been able to identify a third of the
people," Mr. Giuliani said. 

But Dr. Shaler and other city officials say they are far
from satisfied. They believe they have another eight months
of work, as they are just now pushing ahead again, in a
second wave of testing. 

Celera Genomics, a Maryland company best known for its work
in sequencing the human genome in recent years, is applying
its fast DNA sequencing machines to the World Trade Center
identification effort. Celera's work, in conjunction with
its Applied Biosystems division, is focusing on tiny rings
of DNA in cell structures called mitochondria. These
maternally inherited rings are hardier than the long
strands of DNA used in the more traditional tests, and
there are as many as 10,000 of them in each cell, giving
investigators much more to work with. This approach has
been used before - including the 1994 identification of the
remains of Czar Nicholas II of Russia - but never before on
such a large scale. 

The city is also turning to techniques that have never been
used before in forensic investigations: single nucleotide
polymorphisms, known as snips, are telltale variations in
single base pairs scattered throughout the genome - an A
instead of a T, say. The snips can be found even when a
victim's DNA has been broken into fragments as short as 60
to 80 base pairs, much less than required in the
traditional tests, Mr. Stolorow of Orchid Cellmark said. 

In preliminary attempts, the success rate for developing
DNA profiles of victims who could not be identified with
the other methods has been "encouragingly high," Mr.
Stolorow said. The full process of getting profiles,
matching them with DNA from relatives and other sources is
expected to take two to three months, he added. 

These incursions into uncharted scientific territory and
even the identifications that have come from traditional
means have produced a volatile amalgam of deep gratitude, a
resurgence of September's searing grief, the need to
grapple with unfamiliar choices, and more than a few
surprises in the worlds of bereaved families. 

One surprise lay hidden in the hopes of 12-year-old Brendan
Regan until the remains of his father, Robert Regan, a
lieutenant in Engine Company 205, Ladder Company 118 in
Brooklyn Heights, were found and identified on New Year's
Day. The results came quickly, based on dental records and
a medal of St. Florian, patron saint of firefighters,
inscribed with his children's names. 

"It turned out that up until that point, my son had held
out an unbelievable hope in his heart that he was still
capable of having a miracle occur," Lieutenant Regan's
widow, Donna Regan, said. "He felt my husband may have
crawled to a safe spot" and somehow survived, she said.
Now, Mrs. Regan hopes, her son can begin the long and
difficult process of healing. 

But the prospect that science could again and again
identify more of a victim's remains has put some families
in a torturous limbo. "We decided to hold off on the
funeral," said Robert Alonso, whose wife, Janet Alonso,
worked for Marsh & McLennan on the 95th floor of the north
tower. Some of her remains were identified less than two
weeks ago. 

"The last thing we needed was to have a service and then
say, `They've found more remains at ground zero,' " Mr.
Alonso said. 

The impact on families of techniques that can identify
almost any fragment of a loved one's remains is not always
positive. "It's very upsetting," one widow said of the
news. "I almost threw up." 

Given those emotions and the fact that dozens of distinct
remains are being found at times from a single victim, the
medical examiner's office is giving families the option of
being notified only once, when the first confirmation is
made. They are also giving families the alternative of
leaving any identified remains at the morgue until all
testing is over, so that a single burial can take place. 

Still, everyone expresses thanks for the monumental effort
taking place at ground zero and at labs across the country.
The identifications help families escape what Mrs. Regan
calls the "vanish factor": not having anything tangible on
which to focus the last goodbyes. 

Mr. Alonso said thoughts of his children, ages 2 and 3,
help him cope with the upwelling of grief that the
identification of his wife has brought. "Questions will be
coming as we get older: `Where's Mommy? What happened to
Mommy?' " Mr. Alonso said. A grave site, he said, "brings
me a place where when the kids get older and understand, I
can bring them and show them something."


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