Concern mounts over methods of tracing the dead

War on terrorism: Ground Zero
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Confusion over what will be recorded in history as the final death toll for the World Trade Centre disaster of 11 September has deepened after the revelation by American news organisations that their estimates remained far below those still being put out by the authorities in New York.

The leading media outlets have all arrived at figures ranging between 2,600 and 2,950 for people dead or missing from the attacks on the twin towers, including the 157 passengers who died on the two hijacked aircraft. They are all far adrift of the city's estimated total of more than 4,700.

Criticism of the city's methods of counting the victims has been simmering for weeks, partly because the figures have fluctuated on an almost daily basis, sometimes wildly. At one stage, just a few days after the catastrophe, the city's official number for the dead and missing stood at 6,700.

The latest challenge to the city comes from the New York Times, which said yesterday that its own enquiries had thrown up a total of 2,950. Even that, the paper said, was arrived at by using the most generous margins of error possible. It was still 1,800 lower than the city's official estimate, however.

Similar claims have been made by USA Today and by the Associated Press. All three outlets conducted their surveys by contacting all the companies which had offices in the twin towers and asking for their final numbers of employees they lost. Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage, stands out with a toll of 657.

In addition, researchers took account of those who were in the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the North Tower. They also estimated how many may have been passing through the complex. Most casual visitors would have been on the lower floors, however, which were successfully evacuated.

The topic remains extremely delicate. No media organisation wants to appear to be seeking to minimise the horror of that day by suggesting it was not quite as bad as first thought. On the other hand, the news community always thirsts for definite numbers in disasters. And so too, at some stage, does history.

In the hours after the twin towers crumbled, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani naturally could not even offer an estimate of the casualties. He commented only that the final tally was likely to be "more than most of us can bear". That will remain true, whether the final number is 3,000 or 5,000.

In the early days, the city was led to issue inflated numbers because large numbers of missing persons reports were duplicated, with one person often being reported missing by more than one source. Different spellings often meant the city researchers did not spot for some time that there had been overlaps. City officials complained also that foreign consulates contributed to the miscalculations by at first grossly inflating the numbers of their own nationals they thought had died. The UK reportedly fell into that category. "The highest we ever used were 200 to 300," a spokesman for the British Consulate in New York said yesterday. The revised Foreign Office figure stands at 58.

The police department admits it is still trying to eliminate duplications. Police Chief Charles Campisi said that "the list is in a state of flux and it will continue to be". But when asked about the city figure of about 4,700, he suggested that it would not change by very much. "I think we're in the ballpark," he said. The mystery of the discrepancies may not be easily resolved, therefore.

"Where are these people?" Luis Garcia, the American Red Cross administrator in charge of distributing aid to the victims' families, asked the New York Times. He is responsible for giving large cheques to those families, but so far he has only processed 2,563 claims from the World Trade Centre.