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Ten years, 21,000 bone fragments, no closure
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NEW YORK (AP) — His family has his spare firefighter uniform, but not the one he wore on 9/11 — or any other trace of him.
Killed at the World Trade Center, 32-year-old Scott Kopytko’s remains were never recovered — a painful legacy of grief for families looking for answers, closure or final confirmation their loved one was actually a 9/11 victim.
“Very painful and very hurt” is how Russell Mercer, Kopytko’s stepfather, describes it. “And mistrusting of everybody.”
Numbers tell the story in the decade of search and recovery of the remains of Sept. 11 victims — a massive forensic investigation marked by a Supreme Court appeal of families who wanted a more thorough search, and discoveries years after the attacks of even more remains in manholes and on rooftops around ground zero.
• Tens of millions have been spent, including on the painstaking extraction of DNA from tiny bone fragments, using technology refined from a decade ago.
• Of 21,000 remains that have been recovered, nearly 9,000 are unidentified, because of the degraded condition they were found in. More than 1,100 victims have no identifiable remains.
• The pace of the process is telling — in five years, only 26 new identifications. Ernest James, a 40-year-old man who worked in the trade center’s north tower, was the last identification, in late August.
Five scientists work seven days a week trying to make new identifications at a lab in an ultra-modern building on the east side of Manhattan. The unidentified remains are stored in climate-controlled conditions under a white tent blocks from the medical examiner’s office. About 400 bone fragments are looked at and analyzed every month.
Fragments are examined, cleaned, and pulverized into powder to extract tell-tale genetic traces — a process that can take up to a week before an identification is made. Most of the DNA profiles generated belong to previously identified victims.
The struggle to identify the 9/11 dead began almost immediately after the attacks in New York City, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked planes crashed in the woods and plains before reaching its intended target. Forensic teams at the three sites were faced with challenges in identifying victims and the hijackers — some of whose remains are now in the custody of the FBI.
In Pennsylvania, the heat caused by the high-speed crash into a field caused 92 percent of the human remains to vaporize, leaving very little to work with, said Wallace Miller, the county corner who helped to identify the victims. DNA was used to make matches to the 40 victims, plus four sets of remains from the terrorists. To this day, remains are still embedded in the field where the flight went down.
But nowhere was the forensic detective work as demanding and daunting than at the 16-acre World Trade Center site, where the giant towers collapsed onto the rest of the complex, breaking everything into pieces.
Few full bodies were recovered at all. Then, heat, moisture, bacteria and chemicals like jet fuel combined to thwart the detective work of forensic scientists. Some remains were so badly burned or contaminated that DNA could not be analyzed.
Body parts were also recovered at a former landfill in Staten Island, where debris from the site was transferred. In 2008, a judge rejected a lawsuit brought by several families of Sept. 11 victims who sought to move the debris to a plot of land that could be transformed into a cemetery.
The failure to identify so many victims has affected the final victims count over the years The city’s list of the dead — often with multiple missing persons reports of the same people — peaked at nearly 7,000 in the months after the attacks, but dropped to 2,752 by the fall of 2002.
Three more names were removed in 2004 after investigators failed to track them to the trade center; including Sneha Anne Philip, a Manhattan doctor who was last seen Sept. 10, 2001, at a department store across from the twin towers. Her name was added back to the death toll in 2008 after her family argued in court there was no other place she could have been.
And the mystery of who died in the trade center hasn’t yet been solved by science.
Twenty-seven profiles DNA generated so far don’t match any of the approximately 17,000 genetic reference materials that were collected. Scientists aren’t sure who they are.
“It’s an open investigation,” said Desire. “There may be some victims where there are no bone fragments. And they are never going to be identified.”