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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Still connecting names to remains

American flags are placed on the 9/11 Memorial

American flags are placed on the 9/11 Memorial -- an annual tradition at the site on July 4.  Credit: Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images

Of all the numbers in all the news accounts of all the events that took place this past week, one stood out for its searing poignancy:


That’s the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center whose remains have yet to be identified. The number was in the news because the New York City medical examiner’s office announced it had identified one more victim out of the 2,753 people who died at the Twin Towers that awful Tuesday morning.

It was the first such new ID in more than two years, and it resonated among families still hopeful and still waiting for some word of their loved ones.

“We’ve gotten several calls from families that checked in this week,” said Jen Odien, an anthropologist in the medical examiner’s office who works with the families. “We get calls regularly from families just to ask: ‘Has anything been found of my loved one?’ ”

It’s a basic human impulse, when you come down to it. Most of the world’s cultures have traditions for the respectful handling of the bodies of the dead. Those remains and the rituals surrounding them are important parts of grieving. They can help bring comfort and closure.

But grieving is complicated, with as many paths as there are people.

Linda Sarle of Babylon lost her husband, Paul, on Sept. 11. She decided a while ago that she did not want to be part of the medical examiner’s notification program.

“I’m a very spiritual person, and I know he’s here with me in spirit,” she said. “I didn’t need to have his body parts identified. I’ve spoken to my children as they have gotten older and they agree.”

But for many, the lack of a body leaves a void. So the medical examiner’s office continues its work — painstakingly, ceaselessly.

Advances in DNA technology enable remains already tested to be identified. Often, that ID is of someone for whom other remains already have been found. But there are more than 7,500 remains yet to be identified.

The staff now is working mostly with fragments of bones. Some are tiny. But even the smallest shard is filled with meaning, because proof of a life that has ended is proof of a life that was lived.

That truth helps explain why families of servicemen who died in the Vietnam War go back decades later to retrieve a body newly discovered and identified.

It helps explain why Mary Kolesar of North Patchogue pronounced it “joyous” last year when she and her family retrieved the remains of her father, Adolphus David Nava, who died in a POW camp after being captured in the Korean War in 1950 and whose remains went unidentified until 2016.

It helps explain the solemn silence that enveloped the Netherlands in 2014 as a grieving nation welcomed an endless procession of hearses returning the bodies of Dutch citizens killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine by pro-Russian insurgents.

It helps explain the despair of the families of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that was on its way to China earlier that year when it disappeared and presumably crashed.

It helps explain the passion of thousands of responders in lower Manhattan who returned day after day, trying to recover something, anything, from that toxic pile.

They knew how important it was to so many to have a grave to visit or an urn upon which to reflect.

It’s been nearly 16 years since the attacks. Each anniversary, said Julie Bolcer of the medical examiner’s office, “is a particularly emotional time.”

On this Sept. 11, all of us should remember that there are 1,112 lives yet to be recovered, their families yet to be comforted, their stories yet to be retold.

The work goes on.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.