New York death toll may fall to fewer than 3,000

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The death toll from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre may be far smaller than originally estimated, according to independent surveys by American media organisations. The final figure may end up being half what the city suggested in the dark days immediately after 11 September.

Six weeks after terrorists steered two hijacked airliners into each of the twin towers and sent them tumbling to earth, the authorities in New York say they are still unable to give a definitive tally of those who perished. Nor will they say when that number, the toll that history will record, will be available.

In their latest public statements, officials have suggested the number of missing and confirmed dead should stand at a little more than 4,700. They are also confident that figure will not be far from the final total when it is finally determined.

"I think we're in the ballpark," one police officer said. That is already a lot lower than the staggering 6,453 the city reported just three days after the catastrophe.

The official figure used by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at his news conferences has fluctuated almost every day in the weeks since.

Yesterday The New York Times said its research suggested that the number of casualties may be no higher than 2,950. That seemed to confirm similar figures recently put out by USA Today and the Associated Press. Their numbers also came in just shy of 3,000. "It seemed to be odd," said Anthony DeBarros, a researcher with USA Today. The paper had scoured numerous sources to find any additional people it had not accounted for, he added. "It is hard to understand where they are going to come from to reach the numbers the city is reporting."

City officials admit a definitive total has been elusive. The official number has already come down markedly because of duplications found in many of the missing persons' reports. There is no suggestion that the authorities have tried to deliberately inflate the statistics, or the scale of the tragedy itself. "There's a lot of leg-work that goes on," said Police Chief Charles Campisi.

A lower death toll may not diminish anyone's shock or pain, but the absence of certainty, in many ways, has been unsettling a city still suffering from the trauma of 11 September.

Most families of the victims, for instance, find themselves having to mourn without seeing any trace of their loved ones or having anything to bury. A huge memorial service is being planned for those families at ground zero this Sunday.

The Associated Press said its tally of victims from the tragedy now stands at 2,612. Of those, 1,598 had been confirmed dead by a coroner or a court and 278 were reported dead by employers, airlines or families. Its survey listed a further 736 as missing.

The number of confirmed dead is expected to climb steeply in the coming days as forensic experts deliver their first matches between fragments of bodies found and DNA profiles built from samples handed in by victims' families.