I remember growing up hearing people talk about exactly what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot. It always amazed me that years later, people would so vividly remember where they had been and what they were doing. But that all changed with 9-11. I will never forget where I was or the experiences I had as a result of it.
The morning of September 11th, I was seeing a patient, and as was common at the office, we had the television on in the operatory. By the time we had gotten to work that morning, we’d already heard about the “accidental” plane crash into one of the towers, so we were watching the news to track what was happening. When we saw the second plane crash and realized it wasn’t an “accident”, we cancelled the day and started reaching out to family. My husband went to pick up our children, and I went to the Red Cross. At the time, I was on the Red Cross board and we all thought there would be a need to organize blood drives and emergency medical care. Unfortunately, as we all know, there was little care that could be provided because there were so many more deaths than injuries. We fielded phone calls from people and tried to figure out what needed to be done. I remember we needed to photocopy a lot of papers on the Red Cross’ old copier (although I don’t remember what we were copying). I called up Staples in Madison, asked them if the Red Cross could borrow a better copier and without hesitation, they said yes. When I went to pick it up, they graciously told me we could keep it.
As a member of the NJ Disaster Victim’s Recovery Team, a group of trained forensic dentists that participate in identifying the missing and deceased, I waited with my colleagues hoping our task would be small. However, as the magnitude of the missing became apparent, we were asked to work 12 hour shifts to help with identification. My first shift was about two weeks after the tragedy and I had to work starting at midnight. It was an eerie ride through the Lincoln Tunnel and the quiet city to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) on First Avenue. I arrived to barricades and police and was directed to a “room” about the size of a closet that was the dental office. Eventually, we were moved to a trailer parked on the street that was to become our “office” for the next year.
Our group consisted of dentists and dental hygienists who were responsible for organizing all the information that was received by the medical examiner. We had separate files for ante mortem– the dental records that families or dentists gave us about the missing – and post mortem – the information that we collected once a body or a part was brought to the OCME. We worked together in teams to record information. The goal was not on speed, but on precision. Forensic dentistry involves creating a picture of what a person’s mouth looked like when they went missing based on an investigation of their previous dental records and then matching it to a unknown. X-rays don’t always tell the whole picture and sometimes pages of illegible handwriting had to be studied to develop our ante mortem records. The post mortem chart was created in a similar way – precisiely charting all the information that we discovered upon examining a body or a tooth. Then the tedious process of comparing the files begins. Dr. Jim McGivney developed a computer program called WIN-ID that compares similarities between ante and post mortem records and he spent many months at the site helping the team with identification. The program helps to narrow down possibilities and then charts are pulled and again examined with a team approach. The importance of a correct positive ID was more important to us than speed. Most people don’t realize that more of the IDs were accomplished with dental than other methods, although they may have been confirmed by another method like DNA or fingerprint.
The first shift was difficult. The logistics of identification had been rehearsed in training many times, but the emotional impact of what we were doing could never be prepared for. The condition of the bodies was never something I wanted to share with friends or family. I knew some of the missing, as most of us in Madison did, three fathers from St. Vincent’s as well as a patient. I would study their ante mortem charts at the beginning of each shift so their dental “fingerprint” was fresh in my mind as I looked at post mortem records. I found that while I was working a shift I was strong, not letting the horror affect me, only to be distraught when I was at home. I spent a year trying to rediscover priorities in my personal and professional life. It became hard to worry or even care about inconsequential things when compared to what I saw each week.
The Salvation Army was set up in a tent, named “Sal’s”, to supply us with food round the clock. But they provided so much more. I will always remember the Salvation Army workers as a breath of fresh air in a stagnant evening. They profusely thanked us for all we were doing and after a few weeks, the tent was plastered with drawings and cards from children writing to show their support and thanks for our help. Whenever the shift became overwhelming, a cup of coffee and a conversation at Sal’s helped to calm us.
My most memorable experience at the medical examiner’s office was an evening when a Man of Service was brought in. A Man of Service refers to a uniformed officer – police, fire or Port Authority – and while every single person received the ultimate respect, a Man of Service sometimes had more ceremony. The night was long and cold, I had been working with a team in the morgue and we received notification that a fireman had been discovered at the World Trade Center site. The story was pieced together for us – the body was found but not removed from the site until members of the victim’s fire company could get to the site (they were able to see his company number on his jacket) so that they could have the honor of removing him from the rubble. When the body arrived at the OCME, he was draped with an American flag and his company stood on either side while he was silently rolled into the building. As always, the same protocol was followed –visits at personal effects, anthropology, fingerprinting, x-ray and dental. The fire company waited patiently, knowing that identification was not a definite. Just because he had on a jacket with a company number and a name on it, the victim could have picked up someone else’s jacket in the chaos. He deserved the right to a proper identification. After only a few hours, we were able to make a positive ID, mostly because we had the name on the jacket to guide us. As the flag draped body was removed from the building, his company again flanked him, together for a final walk to a secure tent across from the OCME. There was no music, no speech, no fanfare, just a group of men committed to one another in life and death.
I spent almost a year in the trailer at the medical examiner’s office working 12 hours shift about two to four times a month. I was joined by almost 300 dental professionals from across the country who committed their time and knowledge to a unified goal – identification of as many victims as possible so that their families could have closure. I remember driving home one morning from the city, depressed and tired from a fruitless night, and suddenly, I noticed the ubiquitous flags that had appeared on cars and buildings after the attack. As sad as I was, I was proud of my country and proud of myself. I felt as though we were making a difference.
Before 9-11, I often had colleagues question why I “wasted my time” learning about forensics since it wasn’t something that would be profitable for me. It’s true, there was no financial gain from my involvement with World Trade, but the knowledge that I helped our country and my neighbors during a horrible time in our history will forever be remembered and is priceless to me.