Authorities in New York have conceded that the numbers of dead and missing from the World Trade Centre attacks have fallen way below initial estimates and may continue to come down as initial duplications and errors are corrected.
The city's official count stood at 3,899 yesterday, of which 624 people have been identified, with the rest – 3,275 names – remaining on the missing persons list. Some media organisations suggest, however, that the final tally of those who perished in New York on 11 September will be no higher than 2,950.
While the scale of human loss on that Tuesday remains overwhelming, the discrepancies between the deaths tolls then and now are striking. The numbers issued by the city peaked on 24 September, when officials said they believed that as many as 6,275 people had perished in the attacks on the twin towers.
That those high figures were unlikely to be borne out by history has been evident for some time. The New York Times, the Associated Press and USA Today all reported several weeks ago that their own surveys suggested tallies just below 3,000. Even so, those early death tolls became lodged in people's minds and have been consistently used ever since in public debate and political discourse.
Even Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, has continued to cite the loss of 5,000 Americans on 11 September in recent policy speeches. And in everyday conversations still, whether on the bus or over dinner, that same figure tends to be the one that is used.
The older numbers also appear regularly in newspaper columns and on television and radio talk shows. Don Imus, who hosts an irreverent morning talk show on radio and television in New York, even suggested last Saturday that 6,000 people had died at the World Trade Centre.
Officials show no sign of embarrassment over the changes in the mathematics, however, saying that the numbers were inflated at first because of many understandable reasons. They said that lots of people were simply reported missing several times over and it took time to correct duplications. Some women were reported using their married and maiden names.
But the process of whittling down the final numbers is not over. Foreign consulates tended to overestimate the numbers of nationals they lost in the tragedy and are now reporting more conservative numbers.
"Thank God so many of these people are alive and well," Charles Campisi, the chief of the New York Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, told The New York Times.
The Associated Press tally of people confirmed dead and those reported dead or missing at the World Trade Centre stood at 2,772 yesterday. The deaths in the crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania bring the toll to 2,996.Reuse content