Oral Health Group

Forensic Dentistry and 9/11

October 1, 2001
by Catherine Wilson, Editor

New York City — October 6, 2001

Flags flutter everywhere. From bridges and scaffolds to the I-beams of unfinished condos. They dot everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. They are magnificently crisp and they are charmingly tattered. They are a joyful reminder of all that is good and they are a poignant reminder of all that is not.


Stars and Stripes (in place of flags of the world) rim the perimeter of the skating rink guarded by the gold-leafed Prometheus at Rockefeller Centre. They adorn the rusting jungle gym in the unkempt playground that runs along FDR drive. There are flags in every window and ribbons on every chest.

Flags adorn the backpacks and the uniforms, the helmets and the equipment of the hundreds of recovery workers, medical personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers and volunteers who gather each morning in the lobby of my hotel, waiting to board the buses that will carry them to ‘the site’. The crest on the sleeve of the woman next to me on the elevator proclaimed that she was with emergency mortuary ‘on-site’ personnel. I had spent my day ‘sightseeing’.

Mayor Giuliani’s image flickers from the TV screen, his tone reassuring, his countenance unwavering. He is followed by the local station’s reporter interviewing a firefighter who is, like many New Yorkers, blunt. He displays the small jar of ‘Vicks’ workers have been given. Vick’s wiped just under the nose helps ward off the odor. He uses the word incineration.

The late movie is Sleepless in Seattle. Remember? Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and that really cute kid? Remember the part near the end where she runs into the Empire State Building, charms the guard and sails straight to the observation deck? She doesn’t notice the spectacular view but does spy the tiny napsack. Elevator doors reopen, Tom and the kid emerge, tears flow and they live happily ever after. It wasn’t like that today, October 6th, 2001. It was drizzling. The lineup went ’round the building. There were stoic-faced guards and uniformed police. X-ray machines for persons and packages. Surveillance cameras.

It wasn’t raining at the top (so high up as to be in another area code perhaps). The view, spectacular. To the east, Queens and the East River. To the west, New Jersey and to the north, the UN building, shiny Chrysler building, the still-green Central Park. But the crowd is thick on the south side of the building. Fingers point, necks stretch. Heads shake and eyes tear. The yellow crane stands straight and strong like the arm of the statue just beyond.

“They’re paying staff and rent to maintain closed practices while working here in terrible conditions… sometimes sleeping on bare floors.” That’s the situation–as described by Dr. Jeffrey Burkes, chief forensic dentist for New York City’s medical examiner’s office–of the approximately 125 dentist volunteers he leads in identifying victims from the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre.

Teeth are one of the best repositories for DNA in the human body. Next issue, a report on forensic dentistry, one of the most valuable investigative tools available.

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