Face to face with death
Anthropologist survives Sept. 11, helps victims' families find closure
NEW YORK (CNN) -- As a forensic anthropologist, Amy Zelson Mundorff typically toils in anonymity, probing bones and body parts -- many of them centuries old -- from the quiet of the city morgue.
But that all changed last September when she stared down death as the twin towers tumbled around her and days later tackled the most massive forensic investigation in history.
New York's medical examiner's office where Mundorff works quickly became a focal point after September 11 for the media, for disaster teams and most of all for the families of those lost in the World Trade Center attacks. And much to her surprise, Mundorff became a hero.
In June, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg cited her and nine others for their efforts on and after September 11, lauding Mundorff's courage that day and her diligence, intelligence and leadership thereafter in identifying victims and bringing closure to thousands of families.
The professional challenge of dealing with more than 16,000 body parts in all stages of decay and destruction -- seeing far more bodies than Mundorff said she expected to examine in her entire career -- was in itself unparalleled.
The fact that if not for a few fortunate feet she would have been one of the nearly 3,000 victims made her already daunting responsibility all the more unbearable.
"I needed to just be a scientist about it," said Mundorff, 33. "I did think about the fact that it could have been me on the table, so I didn't want to make it personal. That's probably how I ... was able to work every day."
Bruised and with two black eyes, Amy Mundorff arrives back at work at the New York medical examiner's office soon after September 11, 2001.
'I knew I was going to die'
Mundorff came to work early on September 11 to attend an annual training session on biohazards and blood-borne pathogens.
After about 40 minutes, she was pulled from the meeting amid reports a plane had hit the World Trade Center's North Tower.
Mundorff and three other members of the medical examiner's office's assessment team heard of the second collision -- another plane, this time into the South Tower -- moments before heading downtown.
"I kept saying what if there's a bomb on the plane? What if we get down there and a bomb goes off?" the wavy-haired brunette recalled saying while driving to the World Trade Center. "I wanted to go, but I was scared of going. But I was still going."
The team parked blocks from the towers and scouted out the area. Suddenly she heard shouts, turned to see the South Tower crumbling upon itself, and ran for her life. A "tidal wave" of air and debris picked up the 5-foot tall Mundorff and slammed her into a wall.
"I was getting buried in it and it was overcoming me," she recalled. "I hoped someone would be able to dig me out. I just waited to suffocate. ... I didn't think I might die, I knew I was going to die. I don't know why I didn't"
Almost as abruptly as the building fell, darkness and silence enveloped the area. Mundorff vomited and opened her eyes, then said out loud, "Hello, I'm alive" -- as much to convince herself as to alert others.
Mundorff found her co-workers and found her way to the water, taking a New Jersey police boat to New Jersey. Her father, a doctor, examined her that night.
Mundorff had two black eyes, a cracked rib and a large bump on her head, and she needed stitches in her legs. But she was alive and after taking a day off received a huge hug from her boss at the East 30th Street medical examiner's office.
"He looked at my black eyes and he told me I looked beautiful, and I knew what he meant -- that I was alive," said Mundorff. "I just put on scrubs and started to work. It was what I was supposed to do, and what I had to do."
Sorting through 16,000 body parts
As she underscores time and again, Mundorff was not the only member of the medical examiner's office hurt in the attacks or forced to deal with the consequences -- thousands of human remains being brought there to be identified.
"I couldn't sit at home and think about it alone," she said, explaining her decision to return to work so quickly. "I wanted to be with people who had been through it."
The medical examiner's office swarmed with activity in fall 2001, with everyone from FBI agents to firemen to Salvation Army workers doling out food. Twelve-hour shifts seven days a week, were commonplace for Mundorff and others, even with experts flying in to help.
Before September 11, on a regular day Mundorff might analyze bones dug up by construction workers and buried there decades, if not centuries, earlier.
Searching for subtle variations in skeletal structure or body composition, she would piece together clues to determine the body's age, origin and characteristics. Her colleagues would more likely handle more high-profile cases, such as murder victims, although their efforts also were typically removed from the spotlight.
But the terrorist attacks had produced body fragments in such varied states that Mundorff's knowledge of the human skeleton and anatomy made her indispensable.
Aided by visiting forensic anthropologists, she was the first to examine remains brought to the morgue from Ground Zero and Fresh Kills landfill, where debris had been trucked for further inspection, before passing them on to pathologists and investigators.
"It's hard to realize there was a day that horrible," said Mundorff. "I don't think we'll identify everybody, but we'll do our best. That's our commitment to the families."
Mundorff receives an award from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for her efforts on and after September 11, 2001.
All too personal
There was no escaping the terrorist attacks' human impact in New York. Walls plastered with posters of "missing" victims, wall-to-wall media coverage, and relatives scouring hospitals, shelters and, increasingly, the city morgue served as constant reminders of the emotional toll.
Many police officers and firefighters who worked side by side with Mundorff had colleagues, friends and relatives yet to be identified.
Her own September 11 experience made it imperative to maintain distance between her personal feelings and professional responsibility, she said, and she consciously avoided the posters, newspapers and memorial services.
"I needed to keep myself separate," she said. "I didn't look at the posters because it terrified me that I would recognize somebody on the table."
But Mundorff did reach out to the families, helping ease their suffering and strengthening her own resolve. Even though her job did not require she have contact with victims' relatives, she would talk with those touring her office and led others through the Memorial Park at the city morgue.
"It just makes it a little bit more real, puts me in touch with the families again, [and] helps me remember why I'm doing what I'm doing," she said.
Finally, Mundorff allowed herself to address her own personal, emotional struggle. Mundorff said she admitted being in shock after September 11 only this summer, 10 months after the attacks. Now she insists that every day she feels stronger and less scared.
"I thought I was defective, I thought I was damaged," Mundorff said. "I didn't think I would be whole again, but I am. And maybe I'm a little bit better, because I appreciate things a little bit more."
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