Unique, enduring traits key in identifying remains
By Christy Oglesby
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There are enduring elements that will erase the uncertainty. The tattoo etched during rebellious teen years, a pacemaker from an erratic heart -- those unchanging features capable of weathering elements and trauma will help identify the remains in the rubble from last week's terrorist attacks.
Within days of the World Trade Center terror, New York families began posting flyers throughout the city seeking information on missing family members who were in or near the towers. Many listed information about clothing and stature -- evidence of hope.
A man who worked at Marsh, Inc. that day donned dark blue slacks and a collarless shirt, his family printed. A female employee at eSpeed is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 110 pounds. Such details are particularly helpful in missing person cases or in identifying intact bodies. However, what once soared 110 floors now reaches 40 feet above the ground and perhaps seven stories below. The nature of the destruction may produce more parts than complete corpses. And New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has stated some families may never receive remains.
Determining identity will require meticulous sorting, special attention to comparative location of objects and the skills of anthropology and dental experts, said Dr. Randy Hanzlick, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).
"When you have fragmented remains, each one is given a number," Hanzlick said. "And you try to begin to relate certain pieces to one another and eventually relate all those pieces to a person."
Some remains will allow presumptive identity because a medical alert bracelet or a wallet may be with a body segment, Hanzlick said. In the absence of such documentation, location is important. Parts with similar clothing remnants and in close proximity to each other might be related. So debris collection will be based on a grid -- keeping together or marking all elements found in a certain area. To that end, information about jewelry and shoe size is helpful.
Workers face the challenge of processing a three-dimensional scene, Hanzlick said. "This is not like having 30 bodies laying in a field," he explained. "You have altitude, longitude and latitude." New technology such as global positioning systems may help generate precise coordinates.
Items determined to be remains might be X-rayed, labeled and then assigned to particular specialty teams. "X-rays are helpful because soft tissue may have screws in it or something from a previous surgery," Hanzlick said. A body part may be tattooed or have multiple piercing, and "air pockets in bones and the shape of sinuses are unique to people," he said.
A bone may go to someone on a forensic anthropology team, Hanzlick said, because bones have characteristics strongly associated with gender and race. A forensic dental pathology expert might process a part of a jaw or teeth. Those methods would be employed first before moving to DNA sampling. And families submitting DNA samples should strive to get samples from a missing person's mother, Hanzlick added, because mitochondrial DNA passes unchanged from generation to generation through females.
Height and weight, unless a person was very large or very small, may not be helpful in determining identity, Hanzlick explained -- neither will standard dental X-rays.
"Because of the chances of severe crushing injuries, standard dental records are not very good," Hanzlick said, "because they're based on all your teeth being in the right place."
Families should try to gather information on unusual medical or dental procedures. Pacemakers have device numbers and the names of manufacturers on them. Perhaps a tooth anchored into a bone, or dentures, which sometimes have a person's name etched in the plates, will provide identity, he said.
If a missing person ever fractured a bone or had X-rays, perhaps after a car accident, locating those records would help medical examiners identify remains. Hanzlick said. Bones would still show evidence of previous injury and the shapes of faces and skulls are unique, he added.
Accuracy will be essential, Hanzlick said. "Somebody might say a person had a plate in his head and really he just had head surgery," he said. "And if people cannot get records, they should find out where records can be obtained."
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