The city's chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, is retiring, capping a 24-year run in a job viewed as one of the most important in the field of forensic medicine, city officials said Wednesday.
Hirsch is being succeeded by his chief first deputy, Dr. Barbara Sampson. She took over as acting medical examiner Wednesday, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the office.
Borakove added that Hirsch's decision had nothing to do with the firing last week of one DNA lab worker and the suspension of the supervisor of the lab after it was found that some DNA samples related to crimes were mishandled.
During his tenure, Hirsch's office handled an estimated 120,000 autopsies and is widely credited by forensic experts with spearheading the herculean effort to collect, analyze and identify the remains of the 2,753 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Hirsch was himself injured in the collapse of the World Trade Center's south tower after he responded to the scene. He was pulled from the rubble by firefighters, suffered broken ribs and cuts but still went to his office to organize what would become a massive identification process that continues to this day, according to his official biography.
A total of 21,817 remains were recovered and 60 percent were later identified through a variety of means, including DNA analysis done by Hirsch's lab. He publicly stated that he would do whatever it took and as long as it took to identify every victim of the attack.
"I admire him," said professor Charles Brenner, a forensic mathematician who worked with Hirsch in the 9/11 identifications. "He has overshadowed the more flamboyant medical examiners."
"I know he was admired by everybody in the department, and he had reputation for protecting them from pressure from above," Brenner said. "Seventy-five is pretty old to stay in public."
Hirsch took over the job after Koch dismissed the prior medical examiner, Dr. Elliot M. Gross, after an advisory panel reportedly found Gross had deficiencies as a manager.