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AMERICA ATTACKED | THE VICTIMS

Losing Hope, Families Now Await Victim IDs

Search: Forensics experts say DNA tests may be the best chance for identifying remains.

September 15, 2001|GERALDINE BAUM and RALPH A. FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — Shivering in the rain on her 35th birthday, Victoria Cabezas turned over her father Jesus' toothbrush, hairbrush and dental records Friday to death investigators.

It was an act of science and fate.

"They told us to bring any type of dental records," she said. "They said hairbrushes would be helpful--shavers, toothbrushes--anything that they could identify in the event, God forbid, they found body parts."

The New York medical examiner's office is preparing to perform DNA testing on 20,000 tissue samples reclaimed from the wreckage. They'll attempt to match the results with DNA samples from personal items supplied by family members like Cabezas, whose father was a cook at Windows on the World on the 106th floor of World Trade Center's north tower.

The scale of this forensic investigation is beyond anything that has been done--almost beyond description, said officials marshaling teams of scientists, morticians and volunteers.

But it is unclear whether 21st-century technology can find one of the oldest links--a brother, a sister, a mother, a friend.

It is unclear whether after the rubble of the skyscrapers has been sifted scientists will have enough to go on--the traces that will tell with finality of thousands lost.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani seemed hopeful Friday that science would prevail as he described how investigators were gearing up to help relatives seeking answers.

"What the medical examiner needs is a toothbrush, hairbrush, personal items that would contain cells, hairs that you can use to do DNA analysis," he said, adding he expected samples to be sent in from all over the country.

As a need for certitude overcame a need for hope, family members like Cabezas showed up at the Armory on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan with items bearing strands of hair, whiskers and dried saliva. They brought combs, juice glasses from a last breakfast, contacts and mascara brushes.

Cleveland John rode the subway in from Brooklyn late Friday carrying his brother Charles' toothbrush and razor in a Manila envelope.

He had already searched every hospital in the area for his 45-year-old brother, a security worker at Fuji Bank on the 79th floor of the south tower. He had already filled out a standard, seven-page profile of Charles and had been interviewed about him by police, counselors and medical workers at a medical center.

Now, he was resigned to finding remains that would enable his family to hold a proper church farewell for his older brother.

"Some people in the family are still in denial," John said, "and this would bring them certainty, closure."

Forensic pathologists have identified 57 bodies taken from the crash site; 13 other people have been identified by partial remains.

But as rescue workers dug deeper in the debris, they were less often turning up bodies and more often unearthing partial remains.

The mountain of wreckage at the disaster site was dotted with orange and white hazardous waste buckets. Rescue workers were steadily filling them with all forms of remains. The buckets were brought to a temporary morgue in the lobby of a nearby financial office building on the Hudson River, where workers in hospital scrubs, asbestos suits, booties and masks packaged them in body bags. There are 30,000 bags on hand.

The bags were then shipped to other temporary morgues or to the medical examiner's East Side laboratory--the largest of its kind in the country--for identification.

Medical and mortuary workers have been deployed from around the country to assist in this massive effort. At the lab, they are employing standard methods of identification, using fingerprints, dental records, photographs and physical descriptions supplied by family members.

But because of the heat and the impact of a disaster that turned steel columns into dust, officials anticipate that DNA testing might prove the most successful means of affixing names to remains.

DNA--the genetic markers by which individuals can be identified--has been a test of last resort, forensics experts said, because it is expensive and it can take several days to process.

But the testing identified victims in past air disasters, and it is no longer acceptable not to use it, experts said.

After the January 2000 Ventura crash of an Alaska Airlines jet, DNA work continued for almost a year, and by December 2000, 85 of 88 people were identified.

Neither Giuliani nor medical officials would speculate on the cost of this death probe or its duration.

Unlike a typical air crash, there is no manifest with a known number of victims. There may be as many as 10,000 office workers who perished in the terrorist air attack, but there could be many others who died, tourists and loners, who do not have relatives or friends searching the city for them, filling out missing persons forms.

If the task overwhelms the New York lab, officials said they might accept help from federal and local medical examiners from around the country.

Investigators "will just keep going until they have every stone unturned, until that city block is totally excavated," said Murray Marks, a forensics expert at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

That might mean burying the hopes of Michael James.

For three days, James, 47, a gym teacher at a New Jersey middle school, has carried around a travel bag with a change of clothes for his 44-year-old wife, Gricelda, who worked on the 79th floor of the north tower.

"I have her toothbrush," he said. "I've carried it with me because I thought maybe I could find her."

But Friday, that act of faith provided him with the evidence he might need to finalize his search.

Toothbrush in hand, James was preparing to turn it over to investigators.

"If she's dead, at least we can find her body to give her her respect," James said. "If we don't find her, we'd always wonder what happened to her."

*

Times staff writers P.J. Huffstutter and Usha McFarling contributed to this story.

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