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City requests 11,000 body bags

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

NEW YORK -- Police sealed the streets to most traffic, but the man in the semitrailer truck leaned out his cab Wednesday, shipping papers in hand. His cargo was needed by the people working in the New York City medical examiner's office.

"Body bags," he said, by way of explanation. "Four hundred and twenty-four cartons."

Asked how many were in a carton, he shrugged. It turned out there were 5,088 bags in the shipment; 900 more were delivered Tuesday, the day of the attack. An additional 5,000 are due to arrive today, according to the medical examiner's office.

The police cleared a path and waved him through.

No one knows yet how many of those 11,000 bags will ultimately be needed for casualties of the World Trade Center attack. They are just one testament to the scale of this week's catastrophe and the tasks now facing medical investigators.

A convoy of 10 refrigerated semitrailer trucks that arrived from New Jersey on Wednesday was parked along Second Avenue between 30th and 32nd Streets; they had space to store about 1,000 bodies. At dawn, a barge carrying pallets of ice tied up at a pier in lower Manhattan. The ice will help preserve remains as they are recovered from the rubble.

From mass shipments of body bags to the microscopic inspection of body parts, New York is about to undertake the largest number of post-mortem examinations in the annals of forensic medicine.

"The first step is, "Who are you?' " said Dr. Charles Hirsch, the medical examiner. Yet even that could prove to be a step too far in many cases: So many victims suffered massive injuries that even the most sophisticated DNA testing may not be able to identify everyone, forensic scientists said.

If the remains of the hijackers are recovered, the medical examiner's office may be able to identify the culprits, who are presumed to have died with the innocent. Investigators hope to collect personal items the hijackers left behind in their homes or hotel rooms -- hairbrushes, washcloths, dirty clothing -- that may contain traces of their DNA. These could be matched with unidentified remains.

The far more sweeping task, though, is the identification of the victims.

To prepare for mass casualties, the medical examiner's office takes part in drills based on simulated plane crashes or attacks with biological weapons. But no one planned for two fully loaded commercial jetliners crashing into two of the tallest buildings in the world.

"We've never practiced for this," said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner.

To aid in the gruesome identification task, Hirsch's staff has begun asking relatives and friends to fill out seven-page forms. The questions are part of a standard federal form, but they are hauntingly specific. What was the blood type? Was he circumcised? Were the fingers tobacco-stained?

The answers could provide critical clues in visually identifying a charred body, even a limb. To capture this vast universe of personal details, Hirsch's staff will use a computer program supplied by the Disaster Mortuary Organized Response, a branch of the U.S. Public Health Service.

Among the many unknowns in the terrorist attack Tuesday is how many bodies the inferno burned beyond hope of recognition. Jet fuel burns at about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on circumstances, about 200 degrees cooler than some house fires. Crematoriums heat the body to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

Another grim reality may shape the medical examiner's investigation: dozens of dump trucks that carried debris away from the scene may also contain body parts. FBI agents, using small front-end loaders, are dragging through the rubble, then sorting it by hand.

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