Some World Trade Center victims were 'vaporized'
01/15/2002 - Updated 08:28 PM ET
NEW YORK (AP) — Three months after the World Trade Center attack,
victims' families are being forced to face the ghastly possibility that many of
the dead were "vaporized," as the medical examiner put it, and may never be
identified. So far, fewer than 500 victims have been positively identified out of
the roughly 3,000 feared dead. Sixty were identified solely through DNA.
The city and state have allowed victims' families to obtain death certificates
without proof of a body, but many families place great importance on an ID
based on actual remains.
"Until you have something tangible, you just keep hoping — maybe there'll be
some sort of miracle," said Jeanne Maurer, whose 31-year-old daughter, Jill
Campbell, is presumed dead. "You can't accept it until you have something.
"I still say, 'My daughter's missing,"' Maurer said.
Many victims will undoubtedly be identified. Nearly 10,000 body parts have
been pulled from the mountains of mangled metal and matchstick-size splinters
at ground zero.
But Dr. Charles Hirsch, the chief medical examiner, triggered an angry
response two weeks ago when he told grieving relatives that many bodies —
no one is sure how many — had been "vaporized" and were beyond
Hirsch declined to be interviewed. But spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said he
meant that bodies were consumed by blazing fuel from the two crashed
airliners, or "rendered into dust" when the 1,100-foot skyscrapers collapsed,
one concrete slab floor onto another.
Dr. Michael Baden, the state's chief forensic pathologist and a top expert in
the field, said in September that most bodies should be identifiable because
the fires — while hot enough to melt steel — did not reach the 3,200-degree,
30-minute level necessary to incinerate a body.
Borakove said her office agrees with Baden's calculation — as applied to a
full body. "But when the planes hit the buildings, the bodies that were in the
planes as well as some of the bodies that were in the buildings were
fragmented upon impact, and those fragments burn more quickly," she said.
The combination of fire and compression from tons of rubble could reduce a
human body to a small amount of tissue and bone, said Dr. Cyril Wecht, a top
forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh. And finding such small samples of DNA in
1.2 million tons of rubble spread over 16 acres is a difficult proposition.
"There are pieces," he said. "But how do you identify and extract it from other
similarly appearing pieces at the site — bricks, mortar, rubble?"
Marian Fontana, president of the Sept. 11 Widows and Victims' Families
Association, said: "My fear is that financial incentives will cause the city to
clean up the site quickly, rather than to treat it as a retrieval site and do things
in a dignified way."
Her firefighter husband, Dave, is among the missing.
In particular, families are worried that remains will end up at the Staten Island
landfill where trade center debris is taken and sorted.
"The remains shouldn't end up in the garbage heap," Maurer said.
Forensic pathologists are trying to match the DNA of tissue taken from
ground zero with the DNA of known victims. Victims' families have supplied
clothes, hairbrushes and other personal items from which DNA could be lifted
Hirsch's task is unprecedented in size. After the Oklahoma City bombing, all
168 people killed were eventually identified. But even after four years, some
of the recovered tissue and bone were never linked to any of the victims.
Borakove said recently developed computer software enables more efficient
In the meantime, some families, like the Maurers, are waiting to schedule
"We're not ready really for a memorial," said her father, Joseph Maurer.
"We'll do a funeral with remains — if we find them."