Many families still without loved ones' ID

Cecil Burke, pictured at his home in Central

Cecil Burke, pictured at his home in Central Islip, lost his sister Dorothy Morgan during the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack. (Credit: Chris Ware)

Cecil Burke wishes he and his family had something to bury and a graveside to visit as a way of honoring and remembering his sister, Dorothy Morgan of Hempstead.

But like the families of 1,120 other victims lost at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, they may never get that chance.

A decade after the fall of the Twin Towers and the loss of 2,753 people, the remains of 41 percent of those who died, including Dorothy Morgan, have never been officially identified. Many experts fear few others will be.


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"I think that was the most difficult because there was never that closure, because there were no remains," said Burke, of Central Islip. "They did give my niece some ashes in an urn, some that were retrieved from down there. But it's not the same because it's not her ashes."

Dorothy Morgan, 47, was on the 94th floor of the north tower on Sept. 11, at her job as a broker with Marsh & McLennan. The attack reduced the towers to a 70-foot-tall pile of rubble weighing more than 1.7 million tons. Subterranean fires burned for four months.

After the initial stream of victim identifications through 2003, the process slowed. Since 2006, New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been able to identify only 26 victims, the most recent one last month. Even major breakthroughs in DNA technology might not add significantly to that number.

"I think there will be very, very small numbers," said Dr. Robert Shaler, who headed the city's effort to use DNA to identify the remains until his retirement in 2005. "I have a feeling most of the others [victims] were cremated."

Still, Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch and the city say they remain committed to pushing forward to identify as many victims as possible through evolving DNA technology.

Field is changing

"It's a rapidly evolving field," said Charles Brenner, a consultant in forensic mathematics who worked on the trade center recovery. "They keep coming up with new techniques to analyze [small samples]."

Brenner believes that at best, future developments in analysis involving mitochondrial DNA and small nuclear DNA samples might eventually allow identifications to total 2,100 victims, or 76 percent.

In the annals of forensic science, the effort to identify World Trade Center victims from nearly 22,000 remains recovered was unprecedented. Hirsch and his staff used the latest in DNA technology and software.

"The biggest challenge was if DNA is there, how to get the DNA out of the samples," said Mitchell Holland of the forensic science department at Pennsylvania State University, a member of the DNA analysis team.

Holland said he and Shaler developed a method of using small drills to obtain minute fragments of recovered bone. They then chemically removed the calcium and analyzed the DNA material that remained. The DNA was copied in a chemical process and then analyzed. Federal data showed that the majority of samples were profiled in a well-established method known as short tandem repeat, or STR.

But more degraded and compromised remains were tested with methods that allowed the typing of DNA from smaller samples than those needed in the STR method.

The task was daunting because remains were heavily fragmented -- some about the size of a thumbnail -- often charred and commingled. An average of seven fragments were recovered for each identified victim, according to a report of the testing. Still, officials were able to identify nearly 750 victims without the need for DNA analysis, while genetic technology alone led to identification of 880 more persons and played a role in 572 more, according to city and federal data.

The long process was excruciating for families. Nearly a year after the attacks, Carol Ashley finally was able to bury the remains of her daughter Janice, 25, a financial analyst with Fred Alger Management, who was killed in the north tower.

It took almost that long for experts to identify Janice's DNA from the small bone fragments recovered.

Thousands of family members like the Ashleys went through the emotional process of giving officials reference samples -- such as hair from Janice's brush -- to create DNA profiles. The Ashleys also gave cheek swabs to provide kinship reference samples.

"It was very wrenching, not only for us, but also the police officers," Carol Ashley recalled. "It was like a realization that we needed proof that our daughter was dead."

A decade later, many families say they still wish for some identification. "I think most families who never had a recovery feel that way," said FDNY Lt. James McCaffrey. His brother-in-law, FDNY battalion chief Orio Palmer of Valley Stream, became a legendary figure after a heroic climb up 78 stories of the south tower with full gear. Palmer's remains were never recovered.

"We are aware it may never occur," McCaffrey said. "We always hold out hope for sure."

Still not closure for some

Relatives of Welles Remy Crowther, 24, an equity trader in the south tower, know they are fortunate his body was recovered. Crowther, of Nyack, became known as the "man in the red bandanna" who led many to safety before he died in the building collapse. Crowther's remains were found in March 2002, one of the 239 nearly intact bodies recovered. As a result, his parents, Jefferson and Alison Crowther, were able to have a funeral and cremation.

"Very important, very important, but it is not closure," said Jefferson Crowther, 65, about the discovery of his son's body. "But it was extremely important that we got him back."

As forensic scientists continue working on identifications, the remains are being stored at Memorial Park, a massive, white, temperature-controlled tent on 30th Street between the FDR Drive and First Avenue.

Once the World Trade Center Museum is opened next year, they will be transferred there and placed behind a wall on which will be an inscription from Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time." The storage area for remains will not be open to the public, though family members of those who died will be able to visit a private space adjacent to the remains room.

It is a move that has angered some families. "Families are upset about [the facility] 70 feet below ground," McCaffrey said. "Some will never go there; they think it is disrespectful."

Officials of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum said the remains repository was decided after a number of victims' families said they believed unidentified remains should be returned to the place where victims died.

With Ridgely Ochs

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