Rescue workers and volunteers remove debris at the World Trade...

Rescue workers and volunteers remove debris at the World Trade Center on Sept. 13, 2001. Credit: Newsday / Jiro Ose

The latest disclosure by New York City officials that the remains of two more victims of the 2001 World Trade Center attack had been identified signaled a breakthrough in the use of an emerging DNA technology in the two-decades-long effort to identify victims.

Officials on Friday announced that Next Generation Sequencing, DNA technology used successfully by the U.S. military to identify the dead from the Korean and Vietnam wars, led to the identification of remains of World Trade Center victims 1,648 and 1,649, whose names are being kept confidential.

The 9/11 terror attacks were the worst on American soil since Pearl Harbor, leaving 2,753 dead. But while years of development in DNA methodology had led to some 60% of the remains being identified, the pace of discovery slowed in recent years. Before Friday, the last public identification was on Sept. 7, 2021, when Dorothy Morgan, a 47-year-old grandmother from Long Island, and a man were named by scientists using forensics analysis.

Forensic experts said it was just a matter of time before new DNA methods would lead to a breakthrough. Since last September, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner has been able to extract useful DNA profiles from previously unidentifiable material and link them to at least 58 victims whose remains had been confirmed through conventional DNA techniques or other methods.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York has been able to identify previously unidentified remains of at least 58 victims of the World Trade Center attack, tying them to other previously identified remains linked to known victims.
  • Until Friday, it had been two years since New York City authorities last identified victims of the 2001 World Trade Center terror attacks from remains collected at Ground Zero.

  • On Sept. 7, 2021 — just days before the 20th anniversary — Dorothy Morgan, a 47-year-old grandmother from Long Island, and a man — became victims 1,646 and 1,647 after forensic analysis of their remains permitted scientists to make official pronouncements. Two more victims were announced on Friday.

New DNA technology will "help the families get the closure...

New DNA technology will "help the families get the closure they are seeking," said John Feal, founder of the nonprofit FealGood Foundation for first responders, shown in 2021. Credit: Barry Sloan

“This is going to help the families get the closure they are seeking," said John Feal of Nesconset, head of the nonprofit FealGood Foundation for first responders and who participated in the rescue and recovery process after 9/11. "Closure and justice are what we are seeking for the rest of our lives.”

Morgan, a Hempstead resident who worked in the north tower for Marsh & McLennan, and the man, whose name was withheld for privacy reasons, died at Ground Zero on 9/11.

Despite the initial recovery problems, a total of 1,647 victims of the Twin Towers attack have had some or all of their remains identified, which works out to just over 60% of known victims. Just over 1,100, or around 40% of remains, have not been identified.

As the years went on, the DNA recovered — if any was found at all — couldn’t provide useful samples under the technology available at the time. The pace of discovery slowed to virtually nothing.

Mark Desire, assistant director of forensic biology at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, has been leading a team for the past year that has been using Next Generation Sequencing, or NGS, to test World Trade Center samples. He said he is confident the system will generate usable DNA profiles that can help identify victims.

Next Generation Sequencing is now proving crucial in the search to identify the thousands of remains, Desire noted in a telephone interview Friday.

"I think it is a game changer," Dr. Timothy McMahon, director of the Department of Defense DNA operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, said in 2018 about the potential progress the technology offers in World Trade Center cases. 

The bodies of those who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers suffered unimaginable trauma, forensic experts said. Hundreds of thousands of tons of falling steel and concrete generated enormous crushing forces, while the fires that burned for weeks in the debris are believed to have reached temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The fires acted as a kiln, destroying some DNA, with the collapse grinding remains into tiny fragments, said Dr. Bruce Budowle, a renowned expert in the science of human identification and DNA methodology.

The result was that a good portion of the body parts found in the recovery operation could not — in the years immediately following the attack — yield useful DNA for comparison. The genetic material of the victims also was degraded by chemical contamination and the sifting of the rubble done at the Staten Island landfill, where officials initially collected the destroyed remains of the towers.

Nykiah Morgan of Westbury with a photograph of her mother, Dororthy...

Nykiah Morgan of Westbury with a photograph of her mother, Dororthy Morgan, who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and whose remains were identified in 2021. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Last year, a special study by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner posted that as many as 90% of the remains still unidentified may ultimately never be tied to the name of any one victim because the DNA material is so degraded. But Next Generation Sequencing, in essence, is allowing researchers and forensic investigators to do the analysis of the human genome or fragments of it much faster and at extremely lower costs than earlier methods, said W. Richard McCombie, a professor of human genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Next Generation Sequencing allows for faster and less costly analysis of...

Next Generation Sequencing allows for faster and less costly analysis of the human genome, said W. Richard McCombie, a professor of human genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

If even 10% of the unidentified pieces of remains are given a name, that means DNA profiles for over 700 of those remains could be linked to an individual.

After a period of training, Desire and the rest of his team have been going this year through the unidentified trade center remains, seeing if Next Generation Sequencing can produce useful DNA profiles.

But Budlowe thinks that even Next Generation Sequencing technology may not be enough to identify some of the most severely damaged DNA fragments. However, the experts at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner have to keep trying, he said.

“You have to consider the families,” Budlowe said. “Take the best shot you can.”

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