Search for 9/11 victims continues| Thomas Urbain 11 Sep 2018
Seventeen years on, 1,111 victims of the hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center have yet to be identified.
But in a New York lab, a team still works to identify the remains, with technological progress on its side. Day in, day out, they repeat a protocol dozens of times.
First they examine a bone fragment found in the ruins of the Twin Towers. It has to be matched to DNA, so cut and ground to a dust the bone is mixed with two chemical products that can expose and extract DNA. But success is not guaranteed.
"The bone is the hardest biological material to work with," says Mark Desire, assistant director of forensic biology at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. "On top of that, when they're exposed to things that were present at Ground Zero - fire, mold, bacteria, sunlight, jet fuel, diesel fuel - all these destroy DNA."
The 22,000 pieces of human remains found at the site since the attacks have all been tested - some 10 or 15 times.
So far, however, only 1,642 of 2,753 people who died in New York have been identified. Several years can pass without the lab adding a name, but no one is giving up.
"These are the same protocols we had in 2001, but we were able to improve the process for each steps out of necessity," says Desire of the best equipped and advanced lab in North America.
In July, almost 12 months since the last identification, the lab added another name - Scott Michael Johnson, a 26-year-old financial analyst who worked on the 89th floor of the South Tower.
"I felt really good," says Veronica Cano, one of the team's criminalists. "We are trained to not be affected, but we do. Still, I try to be professional and bring closure to families."
The lab only dedicates part of its work to 9/11 identification, handling other deaths and disappearances.
The team works two kilometers from what was known as Ground Zero, and families of victims sometimes stop by.
"It's hard not to be emotional because of the hugs and thank yous," says Cano.
The role of relatives is critical as only a comparison of the DNA of the remains with a sample provided by a family can allow identification.
The forensic examiner's office holds about 17,000 samples, but none for about 100 victims, which makes it a vain effort to pursue identification for those remains.
But when there is a 9/11 match "it brings you back to that day, the horrific way they died," says Mary Fetchet, who lost son Brad, 24, when the towers came down. "But it gives you some solace that you're able to give your loved one a proper burial."
Fetchet cofounded Voices of September 11, a group that helps address the long-term needs of those impacted by 9/11 and other tragedies.
In Manhattan, Desire is the only original member of the forensic team still on the project.
"This has defined my career," he says. "We're very close with the families, and that's uncommon for forensic scientists. We're all trained to be impartial, to be unbiased, to not get emotional. But the World Trade Center is different."