DNA Identification During Disasters Needs Improving

Investigators involved in 9/11 say better system needed to sort things out

THURSDAY, Nov. 17, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- While DNA helped officials identify hundreds of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a team of scientists says the system must work better if and when another disaster leaves a multitude of bodies in its wake.

"We need to establish a routine" to make sure agencies are fully prepared for a similar catastrophe, said Dr. Leslie G. Biesecker, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute and lead author of a report in the Nov. 18 issue of Science. Among the major challenges -- technology and paperwork.

Biesecker and 21 co-authors, including investigators who worked on the World Trade Center DNA identification project, write that the terrorist attacks were unprecedented in the history of forensic investigation. Before then, the worst disasters faced by U.S. investigators typically had fewer than 500 victims.

The 9/11 postmortem comes amid reports of similar problems now emerging in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the biggest natural disaster to hit the United States.

According to a Thursday report from the Associated Press, more than 300 victims' bodies still lie unidentified in a New Orleans morgue. Severe decomposition means many of the bodies have no fingerprints or recognizable marks, coroner Dr. Louis Cataldie told the AP.

DNA identification "is our weapon of last resort," Cataldie said.

The authors of the Science article note, however, that even with the latest DNA identification technology, 9/11 investigators faced many challenges in identifying the dead.

Those challenges included an unknown number of victims, the potential for fraudulent death reports, and the wide range of conditions of bodies. While a few bodies were recovered whole after the 2001 attacks in New York City, many others had disintegrated into tiny pieces of bone that looked like "inorganic material."

To reunite the bodies with their identities, investigators needed to get "reference" or "kinship" samples of the DNA of victims and their relatives, the experts explained. They could then match the samples to the DNA found at the World Trade Center.

In some cases, the DNA of victims came from hairbrushes and toothbrushes, which still held hair and saliva. DNA from relatives helped determine identities when DNA from the victims couldn't be found.

But the paperwork turned out to be a problem, and errors cropped up in about one in every six samples of DNA obtained for matching with material from the site. Officials had to fix the errors or get new DNA samples in those cases.

Why? Some of the forms were unclear, making it possible, for example, that a relative might incorrectly be identified as a victim's uncle instead of his nephew, Biesecker said. Also, relatives often didn't know anything about DNA, and authorities had to spend time designing a brochure to explain things to them.

A ready-made, off-the-shelf system will save investigators "an enormous amount of work down the road. You've got to have (those) things ready to go right out of the gate," Biesecker said.

The report also calls for improved technology to help investigators extract DNA from bodily remains. While about 850 World Trade Center victims were identified, mainly through DNA, technological limitations prevented the number from going beyond about a third of the dead, Biesecker said.

The report doesn't say who should take care of improving paperwork, nor does it suggest how much its recommendations will cost.

Still, it's a "good summary of what happened, and it does outline a lot of the things that do need to be done," said Ed Huffine, vice president for humanitarian services at the Bode Technology Group, a forensic DNA firm, and a former official with a commission that worked to reunite victims of European ethnic cleansing with their identities.

More information

Learn more about forensic DNA from the Human Genome Project.

SOURCES: Leslie G. Biesecker, M.D., senior investigator, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Ed Huffine, M.S., vice president, humanitarian services, Body Technology Group, Springfield, Va.; Nov. 18, 2005, Science
Consumer News