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Giving names to the dead in the wake of 9/11

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Summer


As the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City began processing the victims of 9/11, a fundamental decision about the massive operation was made. “No autopsies were going to be done,” said Amy Zelson Mundorff, M.A., a forensic anthropologist with the city. “The cause and manner of death were not at issue.”

Instead, Mundorff said at a pathology grand rounds in February, identification was the main concern. A “rule of thumb” quickly emerged: any human fragment bigger than a thumbnail would be DNA tested. DNA testing determined the identities of more than 5,000 of the 20,000 fragments found. The medical examiners also used dental records, clothing, personal effects, tattoos and prostheses to identify 1,480 of the 2,792 victims. They still have hopes of someday identifying all the victims.

“Our chief has promised the families it will never be over,” Mundorff said. “Even though we have done all the identification that we can from the information that we have, if new technologies come up in the future we can exhume and retest the unidentified pieces, if requested.”