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New DNA technology will be used to try to put a name to remains of unidentified 9/11 victims

Forensic experts will use breakthrough DNA technology on the fragmented human remains of the unidentified 1,109 victims at the World Trade Center with the hope of providing closure for their families as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approaches. 

The technique called Next-Generation Sequencing, or NGS, uses a device about the size of a desktop printer, which analyzes different components of DNA than longer-standing methods – instead of using the nucleus of a cell the machine looks at genetic materials found in  mitochondria.

While experts have said that some of the remains have been rendered unidentifiable by the damage they’re incurred, the new technology could identify samples that could not previously be analyzed. 

Presently, the unidentified 7,882 fragments of the victims are stored in a 2,500- square-foot repository on bedrock between the two footprints of the Twin Towers at the National September 11 Memorial Complex – a total of 21,906 fragments were recovered. 

Of the 2,754 victims of the September 11 attacks, the remains of 1,644 have been identified – Michael Haub, a member of FDNY’s Ladder Company 4, was the last identified victim in 2019

Mark Desire,  head of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner’s missing persons and body identification unit, told Newsday that his office could start using the process by the end of the calendar year.  

The technology is already used by the Department of Defense, which identified the remains of hundreds of veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War since 2016. 

Of the 2,754 victims of the September 11 attacks, the remains of 1,644 have been identified. Michael Haub, a member of FDNY’s Ladder Company 4, was the last identified victim in 2019. 

Mark Desire, chief of the OCME's missing persons and body identification unit, told Newsday that his office could start using the process by the end of the calendar year. The announcement comes days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

 Mark Desire, chief of the OCME’s missing persons and body identification unit, told Newsday that his office could start using the process by the end of the calendar year. The announcement comes days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The new NGS system uses a device (pictured), about the size of a desktop printer, which analyses different components of DNA than longer-standing methods.

The new NGS system uses a device (pictured), about the size of a desktop printer, which analyses different components of DNA than longer-standing methods.

OCME staff has worked hard to ‘provide the highest levels of care, security and the safest environment for the remains,’ Desire said.

 ‘Under the professional auspices of OCME, the Repository provides a dignified and reverential setting for the remains to repose – temporarily or in perpetuity – as the work to identify the 9/11 victims continues,’ according to the memorial’s web page.

Most of the remains housed there are are bone fragments, some of the most difficult materials from which to retrieve DNA. Those that were not destroyed were severely degraded from the force of the buildings’ collapse and exposure to fire and jet fuel.

Mitochondria, the component of DNA that is analyzed using the new technology, are very numerous, increasing the possibility that they are still intact in damaged forensic material.

Then, the machine uses magnetic probes specific to DNA from the mitochondria to ‘amplify’ them into clusters of millions of identical copies so they can be photographed. 

 Scientists then use the same enzymes that living things use to make DNA naturally to add missing bases that are dyed with bright colors, allowing researchers to ‘read’ the genetic material.

 ‘An even better analogy would be taking five different cake batters, swirling them into one cake pan, being able to eat the cake and be able to discern the flavors, just by eating it,’ said Jonathan Kui, DNA lab supervisor at the OCME, to Newsday. 

He said that with NGS, as many as 30 samples can be processed at a time, compared with one under older methods.

The results can then be compared to over 17,000 reference samples from family members and victims’ personal effects.

Neither the OCME nor the National September 11 Complex’s press departments responded to DailyMail’s requests for comment by press time. 

 ‘We feel a sacred obligation to continue our work,’ said Barbara Sampson, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner, to the New York Times in 2018.  

Presently, the remains are stored in a 2,500 square-foot repository on bedrock between the two footprints of the Twin Towers, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (pictured)

Presently, the remains are stored in a 2,500 square-foot repository on bedrock between the two footprints of the Twin Towers, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (pictured)

'We feel a sacred obligation to continue our work,' said Barbara Sampson, the city's Chief Medical Examiner

‘We feel a sacred obligation to continue our work,’ said Barbara Sampson, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner

Shoes, bags and other artifacts recovered from the site of the 9/11 attacks that are on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum

Two magnum revolvers encased in melted concrete that were found at the site of the 9/11 terror attacks and are currently on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum

Pictured are two magnum revolvers encrusted in melted concrete, which are on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum (right) and other artifacts recovered from the site of the 9/11 terror attacks (left)

In the past 20 years since the attack, 48 victims have been identified using dental x-rays, 15 were identified by others viewing their corpses, seven were named using objects and clothing on their person, 33 using fingerprints, 9 using photos and 3 using other methods, according to the September 11 Families Association. 

The lion’s share, a whopping 800, have been named using DNA testing. 

Other indicators, like tattoos and personal effects, were combined with DNA testing to get a positive ID for 633 victims.

The OCME began training to use the new technology in 2018, but COVID-19 delayed the approval process.  

‘As a forensic scientist, you’re trained to be neutral and unbiased,’ Desire said in 2018 to the New York Times

‘But with the World Trade Center investigation, it’s a different kind of case and when you meet with the families and the hugs and the thank you’s, it gets emotional with them and it really helps with that drive to keep improving that process.’   

Presently, unidentified remains of 9/11's victims are stored in a 2,500 square-foot repository on bedrock between the two footprints of the Twin Towers, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Presently, unidentified remains of 9/11’s victims are stored in a 2,500 square-foot repository on bedrock between the two footprints of the Twin Towers, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Of the 2,754 victims of the September 11 attacks, the remains of 1,644 have been identified - Michael Haub, a member of FDNY's Ladder Company 4, was the last identified victim in 2019

Of the 2,754 victims of the September 11 attacks, the remains of 1,644 have been identified – Michael Haub, a member of FDNY’s Ladder Company 4, was the last identified victim in 2019

A helmet and turnout coat belonging to firefighter Jonathan Lelpi and the badge and gun belonging to police office John Perry, both who died in the September 11 attacks, on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum

A helmet and turnout coat belonging to firefighter Jonathan Lelpi and the badge and gun belonging to police office John Perry, both who died in the September 11 attacks, on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum 

A giant photograph at the 9/11 Tribute Museum shows the cloud of debris that hung over Lower Manhattan after

A giant photograph at the 9/11 Tribute Museum shows the cloud of debris that hung over Lower Manhattan after 

 Dr. Timothy McMahon, director of the Department of Defense DNA operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, called the new technology a game-changer.

‘Will it solve all cases? Probably not,’ McMahon said. ‘But even if it leads to 20 percent identification, that is significant. You are bringing closure to someone’s family on this.’

Rosemary Cain of Massapequa, New York, whose firefighter son, George, perished in the twin towers, said she has received some remains but would welcome more.

‘If there is the tiniest little morsel of my son, yes, I want him back. He belongs to me,’ Cain told Newsday. 

Each victim’s family has the option to choose not to be notified, should their loved one’s remains be identified. 

One Long Island woman in Nassau County who lost her husband in the attack told Newsday, however, that she would ‘not [be] opposed to it at all.’ 

A belated identification, she said, would allow her to host a long-overdue burial.     


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