The phone call from the medical examiner’s office may come someday, and Michael Stack hopes it does. But it wouldn’t change much.
Stack knows his dad died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, even if he doesn’t have any tangible proof. And getting word that his father’s remains had been identified wouldn’t change the reality he has lived with for 17 years come Tuesday.
Still, he wants to know. So do others. Families on Long Island, like the Stacks. Others scattered across the country and overseas. The team of scientists in the medical examiner’s office.
In a sleek office tower on Manhattan’s East Side, DNA forensic experts toil to put a name to a bone fragment. As days have dissolved into years, their work has become only harder despite scientific advancements. Sometimes, they try to identify a bone, and fail. And then they try again, as many as a dozen times.
A couple of months ago, in July, the specialists made a match. They identified a bone fragment from DNA found on a toothbrush of a 26-year-old securities analyst. Scott Michael Johnson had worked at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, on the 89th floor of the south tower. Johnson became the 1,642 of the 2,753 victims to be identified, the first in almost a year.
For Stack, the waiting goes on.
“I’ve always waited for that phone call. But until then, what can I do?” the 49-year-old St. James resident said. “I’m always waiting.”
A different Ground Zero
The Charles S. Hirsch Building of Forensic Sciences is where the painstaking, often frustrating and always emotional work takes place.
Seven days a week, 10 forensic scientists in the medical examiner’s office — they wear pristine white lab coats, surgical gloves and plastic visors — are using the most up-to-date technology to get genetic profiles from bits of bone as small as Tic-Tacs.
“We have actually pushed the science forward into the future, a place we would never be if not for the necessity of working on this World Trade Center project,” said Mark Desire, 49, who is assistant director of the office’s forensic biology department.
If the scientists get a profile, Desire said, they compare it to the more than 17,000 DNA samples provided by the families.
For Desire, the work is personal. He nearly died on 9/11 when he was helping collect remains. A piece of debris from the collapsing towers shattered his leg. After his recovery, Desire started working on identifying the victims and he hasn’t stopped.
The job has been hard from the beginning — the DNA started to deteriorate only about a month after the attack, Desire said.
“There were things at Ground Zero that destroyed DNA — fire, jet fuel, sunlight, water, all bacteria,” he said. “So the samples we have are very challenging.”
Still, Desire’s team trudges on — and they are making identifications, though the time it takes can stretch into months. Since 2016, their average has been about one ID a year. The number of victims still not identified stands at 1,111.
“We have had success, with samples we tried five, 10, 15 times,” he said.
Forensic scientists are trained to be objective about their work, Desire said, but when they make an ID, they get a rush. There’s the excitement of being able to provide an answer for a family still aching.
“The hugging, the crying and the thank you, it is very emotional, all these years later, still is,” he said.
Andrew Schweighardt of Huntington is both a forensic scientist and a family member of a 9/11 victim whose remains haven’t been identified. His cousin, Joseph Anchundia, died in the collapse of the south tower. He was 27.
The search for his cousin, who grew up in Huntington, inspires Schweighardt’s work. And he wants closure for his own family.
With each identification, there is a mix of emotion in the lab.
“There is a little bit of sadness because I know where those samples come from, this was once a living breathing person whose life was tragically taken too soon from them,” said Schweighardt, 34. “There is also hope.”
A voice for the victims
James McCaffrey isn’t holding out much hope that remains of his brother-in-law will ever be recovered, let alone identified.
And perhaps the pain of not knowing hits a bit closer to home for McCaffrey, who retired from the FDNY as a lieutenant. The FNDY lost 343 in the attack: 340 firefighters and fire officers, two paramedics and a chaplain. His brother-in-law, Orio Palmer, had been a battalion chief, directing rescue efforts on the 78th floor of the south tower. Palmer, who was 45, had lived in Valley Stream with his wife and their three children.
With the rate of one identification a year, McCaffrey said, “it will take 1,000 years to identify him.”
Over the years, McCaffrey, who lives in Yonkers, has spoken out for the victims and their families.
He wants the city to work with military scientists who specialize in identifying the remains of war dead. And he is a passionate opponent of how the city stores the remains — in a repository under the World Trade Center site, next to the 9/11 Museum. Families can view the remains through a window from another room.
To McCaffrey, the location is a slap to the victims and their families. Remains, he said, shouldn’t be housed underground next to a museum “selling trinkets to tourists.” He envisions a 9/11 version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument for the country’s war dead whose remains haven’t been identified.
“That’s what pushes me,” said McCaffrey, 58. “I think we are speaking for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
A son’s presence
Phyllis Frank finds her greatest solace sitting on a bench in a little park in lower Manhattan, across from where her son, Morty, lived. It’s not far from where he worked at financial services giant Cantor Fitzgerald. At age 31, he was already a vice president.
Sitting on the bench, she feels his presence. She imagines him walking his dog, sipping coffee and heading off to work.
“I’m there all the time,” said Frank, 78, who raised her family in Lynbrook but now lives in upper Manhattan. She and her husband, Mel, started a college scholarship fund at their son’s high school, Lynbrook High School.
Frank has no interest in identifying a piece of someone who meant the world to her.
“I do not want a part of my son,” she said.
Instead, she’ll keep visiting the park, spending quiet time on the bench. The Franks’ devotion to their son is for everyone to see: A plaque on the top slat reads “In memory of Morty Frank, forever loved and remembered. Feb. 5, 1970 - Sept. 11, 2001.”
“All that is good is in our hearts,” she said.
A brother heals himself
James Giaccone has regrets. He regrets he doesn’t have the remains of his older brother. He regrets his family couldn’t have a funeral. Or a proper burial for Joseph, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald.
“The rituals you go through, they serve a real purpose,” said Giaccone, 57, of Bayville.
Giaccone accepts that Joseph may never be identified. He has already gotten that call twice, only to be told soon after that there had been a mix-up.
So, he carries on. At first, he tried talking about Joseph to his friends — so he could have a sense that his brother wasn’t forgotten. But he noticed that every time he brought up the subject, it became awkward.
“I would see how uncomfortable they became,” said Giaccone, who makes his living as a plumber. “So I stopped.”
About eight years ago, Giaccone started volunteering at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, where family members, survivors and first responders share their stories with visitors.
“It was so cathartic,” he said. “When I came out of there, the sun was brighter. It became my lifeline. My therapy.”
Today, he spends a good deal of time at the Sept. 11 memorial, sitting beside the reflecting pool, close to the engraved name of Joseph M. Giaccone. He likes the sound of the water.
“I’m OK with not knowing,” Giaccone said about the identification of his brother’s remains. “Sometimes you have to let things that disturb you fall to the background, and live the life in front of you.”
The finality of a funeral
For 15 years, the loved ones of Lawrence Stack didn’t lay him to rest because they didn’t have his remains. Then in 2016, the Stacks decided they didn’t want to wait any longer and used blood donated by the FDNY fire chief in place of his remains. Two small vials set in motion the funeral.
On June 17, 2016, the funeral motorcade moved along Clinton Avenue in St. James, passing by thousands of firefighters in dress uniforms. A fire truck carried the flag-draped coffin.
FDNY Lt. Michael Stack and his firefighter brother, Brian Stack, helped carry their father’s casket into Saints Philip and James Roman Catholic Church, where hundreds filled the pews. They, too, had on their dress uniforms.
In his eulogy, Stack said he had come to terms with his father missing so many special moments, including the baptism of his grandchildren. His father had been only 58 when he died.
“Larry, it’s time — you’re going home,” the son told the packed sanctuary.
These days, Stack wonders what the family would do if the medical examiner identified the remains of his dad. The prospect gives him pause.
“We would have to talk about it as a family,” he said.
As for Stack himself, one thing is sure.
“We’re not having any more funerals,” he said. “No way.”