Just when I thought I could not watch another documentary or newscast revisiting 9-11 – I find it incredibly painful – a documentary produced by Britain’s Channel 5 TV aired last week here in Britain – and it caught my attention, keeping it there for every second of the 45-minute broadcast. Entitled, “The Last Secrets of 9/11” it detailed the painstaking and deeply committed work of the New York Medical Examiner’s Office their staff moved a mountain of debris from Ground Zero – and it literally was a mountain – and time and again pushed the boundaries of scientific innovation in their quest to identify the remains of the almost 3000 souls from around the world who perished on that terrible day. It was compelling viewing, and it should be shown on US TV without fail, if only to shed light on the people involved in this arduous journey, and the professionalism with which they have honored their duty to the dead.
The Office of the New York Medical Examiner investigates some 5000 deaths year, determining the cause of death of anyone who departs this mortal coil from the city of New York. Dr. Mark Desire, head of the Crime Lab – which he describes as “One of the most advanced in the world” – described how one entire department has been dedicated to the 9-11 inquiry for the past 13 years. On the day of the attack he was with his team in the midst of their regular weekly meeting. Word came in that something had happened at the World Trade Center, so they were about to dispatch a team to begin work immediately – then from the office they watched as the second ‘plane hit its target. It was a case of “All hands on deck” as they rushed towards what became known as “Ground Zero.” Desire described what he encountered as a “Hellish crime scene.” His first thought upon arrival was, “This is how I am going to die.”
A good documentary is like any good story – it depends upon character. And this documentary was no exception, coming back time and again to the characters involved – but with no shortage of data to stun the mind. Focusing on a handful of family members, it brought home the great need we have to mourn, and the importance of having something of the deceased so that we can lay them to rest. This was paramount in the minds of the forensic team.
In the first 6 weeks of the investigation, some 8000 body parts had been found across a 16-acre site– from matter less than an inch long, to a torso. Many of the fragments were unrecognizable and testing methods at the time offered little hope. Says Mark Desire, “We weren’t going to make many ID’s unless we had a better way of testing.” People like the brother and mother of 31-year-old Geoff Campbell from Sussex, England were waiting for news. Geoff, a consultant for Reuters and working high in the World Trade Center, had, without doubt, died in the attack. Geoff’s brother and his mother scoured the hospitals, but said that, once they visited Ground Zero, “You knew there was no chance.”
Within days of the attack, the wreckage was being moved to a site 23 miles away on Staten Island named – unfortunately - Fresh Kills. Fifteen hundred men and women from the New York Department of Sanitation worked around the clock going through every single minute scrap of debris in a 1.8 million ton mound. It took ten months. Said the Director, “We were going to make sure that everything that came in here was searched – it was not even an option to us that we would leave material that wasn’t touched.” They investigated down to ¼ of every inch of that 1.8 million tons. By July 2002 another 4257 body parts had been recovered in addition to those found at Ground Zero. Problems mounted – identification generally depends upon photos, fingerprints, dental records etc., but most of the fragments were too small or damaged, and there was the added issue of co-mingling of remains and tissue degradation. Samples were badly decomposed – with everything that could destroy DNA present at Ground Zero – heat, sunlight, mold, water, insects, fuel, bacteria.
The documentary painstakingly recounted the process of identification, with scientists returning to the material time and again as they refined their methods and new processes were tested and found to work. Jacqueline Fanning, daughter of Fire Chief Jack Fanning – whose remains were never found – said, “You accept that you don’t get anything back.” Since the disaster, Fanning has struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol as she slipped into the depths of grief over her father’s death on 9-11. She has his charred and melted helmet, and that’s all.
Over time the Campbells received two tiny fragments identified as part of Geoff. But for a Catholic burial, they needed three pieces. On July 20th another piece arrived in Sussex, and he was buried in the churchyard of the village where he grew up. The lab file on Geoff Campbell identified fragments of his scapula, femur and sacrum – and those fragments were tiny.
On April 22nd, 2005 the investigation was coming to a halt – there was no more that could be done with available technology at the time. The Director of the Medical Examiner’s Office, Bob Shaker (I might have the name wrong), spoke about the closing of the site. “We still had so much work to do,” he said, of the applause that accompanied the men and women of his office as they filed into Ground Zero. “We didn’t feel like being applauded.” He then described the scene, recounting the moment a gust of wind came through and seemed to carry itself aloft. “It felt like the spirits were being taken out [of Ground Zero].” At that time, the remains of 1600 victims of 9-11 had been ID’d.
Seven months later, 300 tiny bone fragments were found on the roof of the Deutsche Bank building, adjacent to Ground Zero - discovered by demolition workers. The structure was so undermined by the attacks that it had to come down. The discovery led to deeper searching. All told, another 783 body parts were found at the site – but five years of exposure to the elements had rendered them almost impossible to read. Almost.
A new procedure was developed using liquid nitrogen to freeze bone fragments before grinding them to a very, very fine powder. Bingo! The DNA information released by the procedure – which allowed greater access to the cells – was, as Mark Desire said, “Amazing.” The relatives of 30 passengers and crew from the first airliner to hit the towers received a precious part of a loved one. The implications for the Medical Examiner’s office were huge – and led to a massive retesting of all the material. In 2008, another part of Geoff Campbell was found. His brother said they felt that he’d “Really come home.” And the fact that hair was clearly identifiable on the bone – without any evidence of flame or heat or burning – eased his mother’s fear that his last seconds were spent in hell. He had been killed instantly.
And so it went on. With every new development in testing, so all unidentified remains went through the process. Two, three or four more families at a time received something of a dead relative. 2013 saw another phase of testing – the latest development involved heating and cooling of fragments, with longer incubation – again, a leap forward in DNA yield. Slow and painstaking was the process – but the team was committed. By the end of this year, over 8000 existing remains will have been tested and retested time and again, and for some of those remains, a positive ID will be made.
Earlier this year, Geoff Campbell’s brother, Matt, attended a solemn ceremony at Ground Zero and witnessed the dedication of a new memorial. The existing remains were placed together in three caskets to be interred underground – the City of New York had decreed that testing on those remains should end. Matt and his mother chose to have a fragment of Geoff’s upper arm included in a casket, so his American fiancée – who still so deeply bears the grief of his loss – has a place to go to, if she wishes. At the time of the documentary, she had chosen not to.
Since 9-11, the work of the department represents one of the most formidable and groundbreaking forensic examinations ever conducted, with over 21,906 fragments of human remains being received from Ground Zero, then tested and retested time and again. 60% f the families of those lost have received something, some small piece of someone much loved. But for the rest – like Jacqueline Fanning - the wait goes on. And so does the work. The excavation has been extended to include additional blocks around the site where the World Trade Center once stood. Dr. Mark Desire said, “Our team is as committed today as it was in 2001.
Most of us never think of the men and women who have toiled day and night over microscopic remains of those who perished on 9-11. But one thing I was left with above all else – they have never forgotten that they are touching something that was once human, that lived and breathed, and laughed and loved – and was loved in return. A person who had a family. They never forget that people still wait for word - so they’re still working.