DNA test to name 3,000 victims of attack

War on Terrorism: New York
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The numbers of confirmed dead from the attacks on the World Trade Centre will shortly leap from the low hundreds possibly into the thousands due to matches with DNA samples provided by families of the victims and remains extracted from the rubble.

Forensic scientists will begin making identifications next week. The process will involve matching DNA profiles assembled from 5,000 human remains with the roughly 3,000 profiles drawn from the samples.

So far, medical examiners have been able to positively identify only about 380 people from ground zero, even though almost 5,000 are listed as missing. They have done it the traditional way – looking at dental records, fingerprints, scars, pieces of jewellery or pieces of clothing. Very occasionally, faces have been recognisable.

It has been clear for a long time, however, that the force of the collapse, as well as the temperatures of the infernos inside the towers, meant that most of the victims would never be identifiable by those means. Thus, the city launched a massive DNA-identifying effort.

Hundreds of families responded by bringing items belonging to the missing people that might hold DNA – combs, toothbrushes, nail files and so on – to the Family Centre at Pier 94. The city also sent out teams to private companies and to the families of firefighters to collect samples. Foreign embassies helped in gathering samples from abroad.

How the information is handled, once the matches are made, will also be crucial. Families have been asked to indicate, for example, whether they want to be told each time a DNA match is made or if they would prefer to hear it just once.

As the matches flow in, families who have had no bodies to bury will have to confront a new range of emotions. Being told that a positive DNA link to their loved one has been made will be a vital, and possibly healing, moment for many of them. It will mean that, at last, they will have incontrovertible evidence of death.