Burying the Dead

Two weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that the rescue efforts would continue but it was unlikely that, short of a miracle, more survivors would be found. Given the intensity of the fires fed by jet fuel and the speed of the twin towers’ collapse, it is also unlikely that many of the dead will be found. Few intact bodies have been extracted from the rubble. The New York City medical examiner’s office, nonetheless, has said that it will work to identify and return to grieving families the remains of the dead. The task is immense. More than six thousand people are missing, while only 152 of those found dead had been identified as of September 24, the day of the mayor’s statement.

This mammoth undertaking is conceivable because DNA matching by high-speed computers can be carried out on relatively small tissue samples. To that end, rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center are sifting the debris for body parts while families and physicians are turning over dental records, tissue samples, toothbrushes, and other personal items that may provide the match to the recovered remains. Given the level of destruction and the emergence of other critical needs, this painful, complex, and costly effort could seem grotesque; yet, given the wound to so many families, such an undertaking has come to seem utterly necessary.

Even so, the scale of...

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