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Challenge To Identify the Dead

Teeth, DNA provide best clues to victims of terrorist attacks

THURSDAY, Sept. 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- With an army of loved ones awaiting their findings, dozens of forensic experts are facing the biggest challenges of their careers as they struggle to identify the terrorism victims in New York City and Washington D.C.

Teeth, tattoos, pacemakers and even hip implants all are providing important clues, as will DNA. But even the most modern technology may bring names to only a fraction of the thousands still under the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, experts say.

In many cases "there may not be anything to identify. It's just incredible. It's [mind]boggling what they're facing," says Kurt Murine, deputy coroner in California's Orange County.

Investigators converging on the East Coast from across the country are turning first to personal effects and fingerprints if they are available. Then they' ll use teeth, the sturdiest parts of the body, says Dr. Norman "Skip" Sperber, a forensic dentist in San Diego who has testified in dozens of criminal trials. He headed to New York City last weekend to join the 30 dental experts who the American Dental Association says are working in four-hour shifts around the clock to identify bodies.

This won't be Sperber's first airplane crash. In 1945, while working in the New York City coroner's office, he assisted with toxicology tests on military pilots who got lost in fog and crashed into the Empire State Building. Thirteen people died.

In 1978, Sperber headed a team of about 60 dentists who worked to identify the burned bodies of people killed in a collision between a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) jetliner and a small plane over a San Diego neighborhood. Dental records identified 120 of the 144 victims, including one man who left only a tiny part of a jaw and one tooth.

"Teeth are an extremely valuable and rapid method of identification. It can be done in 30 seconds if you have all the X-rays in front of you," Sperber says. "It's just as good as fingerprints, provided you have good dental X-rays to compare them with."

He says computer databases will be used to match the characteristics of recovered teeth to the dental records of known victims. A single tooth can provide identity, especially if it has a crown or a filling that makes it distinctive, he says.

If teeth and other body characteristics fail to provide identification, forensic experts may use X-rays to match body parts with each other, says Walter Birkby, a forensic anthropologist based in Tucson.

DNA also can provide identification, and medical examiners in New York City say they plan to test an estimated 20,000 body parts. They need DNA from the missing persons, perhaps from saliva on a toothbrush or hair from a brush or comb. As a last resort, investigators will use DNA from relatives for comparisons.

Investigators in New York City and Washington, D.C., bring much more expertise than they would have just two decades ago, before forensic identification became common, Birkby says. "Their training and experience is going to make a difference," he says.

Still, experience won't keep the workers from feeling stress. After the PSA crash, many dentists involved in the identification efforts were overwhelmed, Sperber recalls. "There were psychological problems and fatigue problems."

Birkby says exhaustion will be the biggest challenge facing forensic experts. "In this business, you don't really identify with the victims," he says. "You're dealing with problems. It's a situation that needs to be handled. Most of us are so used to that type of emotional stress that were divorced from it."

The memories, of course, will linger. A few months ago, Sperber went to a San Diego cemetery to look at the adjoining graves of four men on the doomed 1978 PSA flight. While parts of their bodies were recovered, "we couldn't tell them apart," Sperber says.

That lack of identification might be seen as a failure, but Sperber sees the work of investigators 23 years ago as a triumph. Eventually, through various methods, 140 of 144 bodies were identified. "There was nothing else that could be done," he says.

What To Do

To learn more about forensic identification through DNA, check this fact sheet compiled by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

A variety of groups are accepting donations for victims of the terrorist attacks. Leading Internet companies have formed the American Liberty Partnership to provide a list of relief organizations.

SOURCES: Interviews with Norman "Skip" Sperber, D.D.S., forensic dentist, San Diego and Imperial counties, San Diego; Kurt Murine, M.D., deputy coroner, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's office, Santa Ana, Calif., and Walter Birkby, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist, Pima County Medical Examiner's office, Tucson, Ariz.; photo courtesy of Federal Emergency Management Agency
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