FIU Forensics Discusses Victim Identification and Recover Following 9/11

Soldier places candle during FIU's 9/11 remembrance vigil. Maya Washburn/ PantherNOW

Diego Diaz / Assistant News Director

September 11th, 2001, the day that changed the course of American history. A day which marks the loss of 2,977 American citizens, all of whom thought they would be returning home to their loved ones following the end of their shift. 

“Anybody who went to a hospital on 9/11 knows how empty they were, there really weren’t many nonfatal injuries,” said Timothy J. Hardiman,  former commanding officer of Queens South Task Force.

FIU’s Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC) hosted a live panel on Thursday, Sept. 9, discussing victim identification following the September 11th attack, and the advancements made since.

“This week two more victims of the 9/11 attacks were identified using advancements in DNA technology,”  wrote the GFJC in an Instagram post promoting the event.

Panelists included officials who took part in the victim recovery and identification effort following the attack, such as Hardiman and Mark Desire, assistant director of the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner. 

It was Desire’s lab that identified the two victims.

“I think the biggest advancement has just been the use of computers and automation [of databases],” said Desire.  “A lot of those techniques 20 years ago, that we needed, we have developed ourselves.”

Desire related these advancements to the chaos that unfolded following the September 11 attack, detailing the massive effort his office had to undertake.

“The next morning, September 12, I was making 20,000 case files, 20,000, paper, body ID folders, do you know how high 20,000 is if you stack them?”

Desire also spoke about the despair he witnessed the following weeks each time he entered his office.

“Outside of our crime lab, that’s where they had that wall of sorrow and families, hundreds of them,” said Desire. “We had to walk through, we stopped wearing our uniforms and our jackets because you’d be stopped and it just got way too emotional at eight o’clock in the morning trying to get into your office.”

Hardiman spoke about the litany of phone calls the Queen’s police department received from victim relatives, each begging for information about their loved ones.

“Think about it, what would you do?” asked Hardiman. “If you knew someone, somewhere, who might be able to get you that information sooner you’re not going to hold back and say, Oh gee, I don’t think I want to bother or maybe he’s busy.”

Robert O’Brien, forensic biology research project manager at FIU’s National Forensic Science Technology Center, explained how the recent technological advances have aided in addressing this despair.

“In that respect, the technology will be of great use at a scene when you have a lot of samples, some of it can be used in rapid DNA and see if you can get an answer right away,” said O’Brien. “And if not, then you still have a lot leftover you can take to the lab, but at least we might be able to get some kind of closure perhaps, at the scene at the location.”

Moderator Kevin Lothridge, director of GFCJ, asked the panelist what innovations they would like most to see within the field.

“I think one thing would be to make all the technology we have talk to each other better,” said Desire. “ So if we had a way to marry up their Surveillance photos, video of people walking into a building where there was a disaster, and then subtracting the ones who walked out, you’re beginning to work that manageable number down.”

After the panel, Miami-Dade Crime Laboratory Senior Bureau Commander, Stephanie Stoiloff was invited to talk about her experience leading the Surfside building collapse recovery.

Stoiloff began by pointing out that though communication technologies have advanced, it still needs much improvement. She explained how their primary database relied on incomplete or incorrect data, delaying the identification and recovery process. 

Stoiloff also detailed the challenges faced during the DNA testing process. 

“I’ll take anybody’s DNA who’s a relative, and as many as we can, because we don’t know if the family tree is really going to be the family tree, which happened,” said Stoilloff.

Nearing the end, the panelist discussed the need to document these challenges faced and the workarounds created by officials. They hoped this could circumvent the lack of experience within the new generation. 

“We’ve got to memorialize these things, whether it’s through panel discussions like this, after-action reports or taking out the plan that you had, and annotating it, redlining what worked and what didn’t,” said Hardiman. “And just as hard as it is, as you’re working on the situation, try to think about the person following you.”

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