'DNA Story': Identifying the Sept. 11 Victims Sept. 11 changed much about the world -- including the way victims of mass tragedies are identified. The former head of forensic biology for New York City talks about using DNA to identify victims of the attack, examining over 20,000 samples in an attempt to identify those who died.
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'DNA Story': Identifying the Sept. 11 Victims

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'DNA Story': Identifying the Sept. 11 Victims

'DNA Story': Identifying the Sept. 11 Victims

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For the rest of the hour, we're going to take a look at the massive effort to identify the remains of those who were killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. We remember that clear September morning so well: two planes, confusion, chaos, collapse, death, thousands of victims. After the towers fell, nearly 20,000 fragments, pieces of human bodies, were collected from the World Trade Center sites and later from the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York. The massive job of trying to match those pieces to a face, to a mother, a sister, a husband, a friend, fell into the hands of my next guest.

Normally he's used to dealing with carefully collected DNA evidence from crimes on the scene, from rapes, from homicides. Nothing prepared him for the work such as a mass tragedy that was presented to him. He's author of a new book, "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story; The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing." Robert Shaler is the former director of the forensic biology department in the office of the chief medical examiner of New York, and he has now--joining us from WPSU, a member station, because he is now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. ROBERT SHALER (Penn State University; Author, "Who They Were"): Thank you. It's--glad to be here.

FLATOW: This--you know, reading this book, there's--it's almost cathartic for you, is it not? It's a very emotional book.

Dr. SHALER: Yeah, I think it was. It was one of the--when I finally made the decision to write the book, I found that it was something that I just couldn't stop doing. I had to get it finished in order to feel better for myself.

FLATOW: Tell us what you were doing that day.

Dr. SHALER: I was at a staff meeting, and one of the staff members in my lab came and knocked on the door and said a small plane has hit the World Trade Center, and they want to set up a temporary morgue in Lower Manhattan, and would it be all right if I go along with them? And I said, `Sure.' And I followed him downstairs, and by the time we got downstairs, we knew that there was at least one major--one airliner had hit one of the buildings and the medical examiner's office was mobilizing to go downtown to Midtown--to Lower Manhattan to set up a temporary morgue. We knew that there was a fire, and where there's a fire, there's usually bodies, and so that was our job is to collect the bodies and identify them.

FLATOW: Hey, you write that you were, you know, set up to handle maybe an airplane crash of a few hundred people as you might have to, you know, if there were a plane crash in New York at one of the major airports, but nothing on this scale.

Dr. SHALER: Well, that's true. You know, I was in charge of the largest public forensic biology laboratory in the United States at that time, and we had certain capacity, more so than most laboratories in the country. And we felt fairly confident that we could handle an airplane crash of a couple of hundred people. And in fact, we did; we had the American Airlines Flight 587 crash two months after the World Trade Center buildings fell. But when you're looking at 19,000-plus pieces and 2,749 people that die and everyone is fragmented, you--it's such an overwhelming task, you can't do it all by yourself.

FLATOW: So what did you have to do to get this work? Did you have to totally revamp the way you normally do work and collect the data?

Dr. SHALER: Well, yeah. The--we had to completely reorganize the laboratory. The laboratory had to be divided into what we call disaster teams, and we had to continue working rapes and homicides in the city of New York, 'cause that's our primary mission. And then, of course, the World Trade Center gave us a secondary mission. But we still had to enlist other laboratories to help us, and at one time we had six different laboratories around the country working with us.

FLATOW: At what point did you realize that the old way of doing things wasn't going to work; you'd have to just change everything?

Dr. SHALER: Well, about the third week...

FLATOW: Was it moments, hours, days, months?

Dr. SHALER: Well, you know, it's one of these things where you have this enormous task...


Dr. SHALER: ...and you know it's a big task, but you just start doing the things that you normally do to put processes in place. And then you get to the point and you think, you know, `I need help.' And that happened probably in the first part of that first week. Tuesday was when it happened, and by Friday we were talking to the state police about having them help us.

FLATOW: And how do you deal with the 20,000 pieces that need identification?

Dr. SHALER: Well, I don't know if how you deal with them is the way to look at it. If somebody gave me a stack of 20,000 pieces, I'd say, `It can't be done.' But what happens is they come in piecemeal. You know, you--came in, like, several hundred a day or a couple thousand a week. It's not like you get all 20,000 at one time. And the collection process or the recovery process, as we call it, went on until May of the next year, so it was a nine-month period where these pieces are coming in the laboratory.

And so you set up processes to analyze them. The first thing you do is you have to categorize them, and you have to--you do that using bar codes so that you don't mix something up. And then you have to extract the DNA, and once you extract the DNA then you have to analyze it, and then once you analyze it you have to interpret it, and then once you interpret it you have to see if it matches anybody. So it's a very--it's a stepwise process. All the steps weren't in place when it started, and we had to build a number of those processes from scratch in order to get it all done.

FLATOW: So the FBI coding system that you used just wasn't going to work.

Dr. SHALER: Well, that's true, and the reason for that is that the FBI's system is built upon being able to obtain high-quality DNA. And the FBI coding system is called CODIS, which is like a national DNA index that we commonly use or routinely use to identify rapists and murderers who've been arrested in the past, and then we can compare their DNA against DNA found at the crime scene, for example. And that's a direct match, and it's a very fairly simple and easy thing to do, and most of the DNA you get is in good enough condition that you have almost full or complete DNA profiles.

FLATOW: Hang on to that...

Dr. SHALER: The World Trade Center...

FLATOW: Hang on, 'cause we're--I don't want to interrupt your flow, but I wanted to give you more time to give us the full story. So stay with us; we'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with my guest, Robert Shaler, who is former director of the forensic biology department of the office of the chief medical examiner of New York, and who's the gentleman who was in charge of, you know, the DNA, identifying the 20,000 different forensic pieces of DNA that needed to be identified, parts of people from the World Trade Center; author of the new book "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story; The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing." Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Dr. Shaler, when I rudely interrupted you, you were telling us about the limitations of the identification system that you were using at--the FBI system; is that correct?

Dr. SHALER: Well, most public forensic DNA laboratories utilize the FBI's CODIS system, which is the national DNA index, and we use this to identify rapists and murderers by matching crime-scene samples to DNA taken from these people when they're arrested and incarcerated.

But the World Trade Center was different because the DNA was not very good quality DNA and, in fact, it was what we call part--we got partial DNA profiles. And no one had ever done much work before to utilize partial DNA profiles to make identifications, so we had to put a whole series of new things, processes, into place in order to make identifications. And in order to do this, we convened a panel of about 30 scientists who sit down and discuss these issues. These are people who are geneticists, people who have had mass disaster experience, although none of them had experience with something like this before. And we put in rules to enable us to make these identifications so that we were certain that we were not making mistakes.

FLATOW: You write in your book that--and I'll quote from it--"I decided early in October 2001 to venture away from the tried and true"--and you say--use a term STRs--"used daily in forensic work worldwide, because I knew in my heart that path would not return enough of the missing to their families. Unfortunately, the path I chose left my staff emotionally drained and created problems for my laboratory's daily routines. My decision dragged out the testing by at least two years, probably longer, and it almost killed me. While I'm sorry for the extra work and intense emotional pressure I heaped upon my staff, I will never apologize for bringing loved ones back to their families, loved ones who, without these new technologies, would forever remain nameless."

Can you explain what that means, what you did and how--the new territory you had to blaze there to make this work, and why it was such an exhausting situation for you?

Dr. SHALER: Well, the first thing I noticed was that, like I said, we were having partial DNA profiles. And the amount of DNA in the DNA information we were getting was so skimpy that we'd never be able to make identifications. So we had to--I had to look at other ways of analyzing DNA. The fact that there was DNA there gave me hope that maybe we could do something about it.

So we looked at a couple of different things. One, we looked at what we call miniplexes, and these are different ways of looking at STRs, but in such a way that we can look at smaller pieces of DNA than we had been looking at in the past. And so by looking at smaller pieces of DNA--because what happens when DNA deteriorates, it fragments into smaller and smaller pieces. So I reasoned that if we could look at some of those smaller pieces, we might be able to make more identifications.

So what happened--we had to have the laboratory reinvent a wheel, so to speak. They had to go back and do research to make sure that these techniques worked, and then we had to put them through an exhaustive proficiency testing program. We had to make sure that what they were--the results they were getting were valid on the kinds of samples that we had in the laboratory. So this took a year to get this work done. So it extended the process because we had to research it to make sure it was working properly.

But on the day that we finally--we started that process in March 2002, and in December 2002 we got our first day--actually, we started that process in November 2001. And by December 2002, on the first day we got data, we got five new identifications. And for all of us in the laboratory at the medical examiner's office, it was, you know, high fives and we were hugging each other because we just--we had been getting very, very few identifications, and to get five new ones at exactly that--from this new data, it was just a terrific feeling.

So that was one of the new things we did. Another thing we did was to look at even smaller pieces of DNA, and we used--identified mutations on the DNA called SNPs, which stands for single nucleotide polymorphisms. And although SNPs have been around for a long time and people know about them and the pharmaceutical industry is using them, they'd never been used for this kind of a purpose before. They'd never been used to make identifications in a mass disaster where the quality of the DNA is really bad.

And so it wasn't until late in 2004 when we started getting all of the data from the SNPs, and finally when we got that data, we were able to make new identifications from that as well. And what really happened as far as new identifications was concerned is we were able to take these new technologies and marry them to the tried-and-true technology. So we get a piece of the data from the original STR testing, we get another piece of data from the miniplex testing, and then we get another piece of data from SNP testing. And we could make an identification that way. Otherwise, without any of those technol--with the original technology, we would never make the identification.

FLATOW: But you would have to have something to compare it to, right, an original?

Dr. SHALER: That's exactly right, and there's two ways to do that. One is what we call direct testing, where you take a sample from the person who's missing, which could be from a toothbrush; it could be a biopsy; it could be biological fluid from a pair of underwear--and you take that DNA and you get a DNA profile from it and you put that into a database. And then you take a DNA profile from a piece of tissue from a mass disaster, and you put that into a database, and hopefully you have the appropriate kind of software that can help you match those samples up. So that's called a direct test.

There's also an indirect test, which is much like a paternity test. So you get biological samples from the biological relatives of the person who's missing, which could be a mother and a father, it could be brothers and sisters or it could be combinations. And what you're doing is you're creating the genetic profile of that family. And so when you get the DNA profile of the fragment from the mass disaster site, you see if that genetic profile fits into the genetic structure of the family. And if it does, then you have an identification.

FLATOW: How did you go about collecting these samples from the families or getting any of the originals to compare to?

Dr. SHALER: Well, New York City set up family assistance centers, and these were set up in various places around the city, but the one that was there the longest was on Pier 94 on the--along the Hudson River. And families would come and they would be interviewed and they would give samples. We had provided police department with sort of like a road map on the kinds of samples you could collect. The problem is that the police who were collecting the samples didn't understand DNA testing; they don't understand identification using DNA. They're not the...

FLATOW: In fact, that was not really their job to do that in a normal situation, right?

Dr. SHALER: Oh, normally they don't do things like that, that's correct.

FLATOW: Yeah. You had to train them how to do that as sort of on-the-job training.

Dr. SHALER: Yeah, they had to be trained. There wasn't enough time to train them.


Dr. SHALER: The family assistance center, I believe, was set up--the first one was set up on Thursday...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SHALER: ...which would be the 13th of September. And they weren't prepared to do it, and so a lot of mistakes were made. And samples were collected inappropriately; they were labeled improperly. And this created a huge nightmare for us because we had to go back and sort out these problems because if you don't, then you put the wrong name to a piece you get from the mass disaster site, and you end up giving samples back to a family that shouldn't have it.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number, 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Have all the samples been identified now?

Dr. SHALER: No. There are significant--there's about 1,100-plus samples which have not been identified. Some of these have very poor DNA quality in them. Some of them have absolutely no DNA left in them. So the ones with no DNA will never, ever be identified. And these are typically the samples that came from the hottest parts of the burning buildings. These are bones which are pure white; they have no biological material left in them. We call these kinds of bones creamains, very much like a cremated sample.

FLATOW: Were there any lessons from your experience with forensics and the World Trade Center that might have or were possibly used in identifying body with the Katrina victims?

Dr. SHALER: Well, yeah. They--every step in the identification process created a lesson for us, and--because there were mistakes made all along the way, and mistakes in that we just didn't have the processing set up and we had to learn how to do them. And what we learned is that people tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, and when they began getting in to make the identifications at Katrina, I was working with some folks in Louisiana, trying to help them from making the same mistakes that we did. And by and large, they did correct some of those mistakes, but then they had another set of problems that they had to work with, and the problems that they had were different from the problems we had in New York.

FLATOW: You eventually had to give up--I don't mean give up the project, but you had to stop trying to identify samples. Why was that?

Dr. SHALER: We ran out of technology. We had taken the technology that we were using as far as it could go, and we weren't getting any new identifications out using it. So it's time to what we call a pause and back off for a while with the intent of, when new technology comes along, we would pick up the project again.

FLATOW: Were the families of the victims cooperative, or did they see this as an intrusion?

Dr. SHALER: They were the most terrific people I'd ever met in my life. They helped us; they were supportive of us. All they ever demanded from us was to tell them the truth and not to pull punches on them. You know, they would come through the laboratory and we would explain the process and what the DNA process was and what kind of data we were collecting and how we interpreted it.

It was really important to them that we demystify the DNA process. You can just imagine, you get a piece of bone back which is maybe six inches long, and that's the only piece you get back. And they ask, `Well, how did you make the identification?' And you say, `Well, DNA made the identification.' Well, to a layperson, what does that mean? They have to have incredible faith that you as a scientists, that you as a government worker are doing the kind of job and the quality job to now enable you to make that kind of a decision and say that this piece of bone came from your loved one.

And as most people are a little skeptical of government in general, you have to do more than just say that to them; you have to show them and you have to show them the controls you've put into place. And this is exactly what we did. We had weekly meetings with these families. We talked to them. Our lines were open to them.


Dr. SHALER: And on top of that, I think they felt a compassion that we had for their loved ones. And when I'd make an identification or my other staff would make--others on my staff would make identifications, we saw the pictures of these missing people on our computer screens, so we could put a face to a name. And I think the ones who saw that really appreciated the fact that we did that.

FLATOW: Were there people who just didn't want to know, don't--you know...

Dr. SHALER: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah, `I just can't deal with it.'

Dr. SHALER: Yes. There were a couple hundred families who just said, `Look, we're not going to give you any way to make this identification. We're not going to give you biological samples. We're not going to give you toothbrushes. We believe that our loved one died down there, and we'll'--I guess they had to go prove it to the courts so that they could settle their estates, but they just didn't want the remains back.

FLATOW: And what has all this done to you?

Dr. SHALER: Well, it's given me a different perspective on life and given me another cause in life, so to speak, and that cause has to come through the education process. One of the things I learned in going through this is that the young people in this country are not prepared to do this. And I just thought that by coming to Penn State and starting a new forensic science program that I could be instrumental in helping young people get to the point where they could handle something like this because part of our program is to talk to them about handling mass disasters.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about forensics this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking with Richard Shaler, who is author of the new book "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing." You were just telling us that--about the center. You are professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State but you're now the director of the forensics program. Is this something for incoming freshmen, for everybody, or is it somebody who wants to go into forensics?

Dr. SHALER: Well, it's for both. It's for forensic--for students who are coming into the college as freshmen and they want to go into forensic science. We've established a four-year baccalaureate program, which I think is probably the most rigorous program in the country. When I was a director of the laboratory in New York City I invariably saw students who walked through the doors looking for jobs who had even master's degrees, didn't even know how to make up solutions, didn't know how to use a pipette. And I thought that was really bad. How could anyone in a position like I had hire someone who really didn't understand the very basics of science?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SHALER: So the program that I wanted when I came to Penn State was to create a program that created first scientists and then forensic scientists. And that's--and we've put together an extremely rigorous program so that when these students leave Penn State, they're going to be the best-trained and the best students to go into the profession.

Now we've also created a master's program and we're going to build upon our baccalaureate program. It is the most rigorous master's program I know of in the country. And our goal is to create quality scientists and quality forensic scientists. And one of the things we're doing with these students is teaching them from the mistakes that others have made. You know, if someone has made a mistake, these things get publicized in the newspapers and you can go and get the information and you can find out why the mistake was made. And these become great teaching lessons for students. So that once they understand the underpinnings of the profession, which is basic science, then they can go off and they can--they'll be able to handle the rigors of the real world when they get out.

FLATOW: Have these forensic TV shows been a boon or a bane to you, do you think?

Dr. SHALER: Both. They certainly create students who have an interest in forensic science.

FLATOW: I'll bet, yeah.

Dr. SHALER: Yeah. We have a freshman class of about 20 people, and, by and large, most of them are there because of "C.S.I." And that's good because it creates an interest in the profession. But it also creates unrealistic expectations on the parts of some of these students. They don't understand when they do this that they're not--that they're coming to school to be scientists. They think that they're going to be doing crime scene investigations and a little bit of science along with it.

FLATOW: Shine a light on it and you get the answer, yeah.

Dr. SHALER: Well, that's true. And, you know, that's what you see on "C.S.I."

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SHALER: Now "C.S.I." has done a good thing. It has created a person who doesn't really exist but maybe that person should exist. So we're trying to create that person in a world where that person doesn't exist.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But first you have to break them of the old idea, the old stereotype.

Dr. SHALER: Yeah, and what's going to happen, I think, is these students who come in the door and into our program and some of them are going to realize that they're not cut out to be scientists. But that doesn't mean they can't go into law enforcement and that doesn't mean we can't teach them the principles of crime scene investigation and crime scene reconstruction. We can certainly do that and we will and we are. But I don't think they're going to graduate with degrees in science. They may end up in crime law and justice or something like that...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SHALER: ...but they'll still be productive members of the law enforcement community.

FLATOW: Yup. We're talking with Robert Shaler, former director of the Forensic Biology Department of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York. He is now talking about his new course at Penn State University. He is author of "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing."

I know you're all on the line waiting to talk to him. We'll take a short break, go to the phones, take your calls, talk about the investigations, the forensics that are involved in the World Trade Center. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about using DNA to identify victims in the World Trade Center and 9/11 attacks with my guest Robert Shaler, former director of the Forensic Biology Department in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York. He's author of "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing."

Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to the phones to Michael in Grand Rapids. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Ira, great show.

FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: I've got two little questions. One, I was wondering if there was any DNA collected from service animals or people's personal pets that might have been in the building and if that impacted the process? And did they identify and collect DNA from all of the people that were in the aircraft that hit the buildings?

FLATOW: You mean the terrorists?

MICHAEL: I'll take my answers off the air.

FLATOW: OK. I think he meant the terrorists. Did you collect any terrorist DNA? Could you identify them?

Dr. SHALER: We identified three of the terrorists. I was surprised because I didn't think any of the--anyone from the planes would be identified because just the way the planes hit and then exploded. But apparently--rumor was that passengers were herded to the back of the plane and guarded there so that when the planes hit the buildings and exploded it apparently blew--fragmented them but also blew them out of the main fireball. And so we were able to identify some of them. And when we started seeing identifications of people on the planes coming through, we though maybe we would be able to identify some of the terrorists, as well. So we contacted the FBI to see if the FBI would--had any information or any DNA from the terrorists or had access to it. And it took us about a year to get that all together. We finally got a letter from the FBI that gave us 10 DNA profiles that were coded. We didn't have names associated with them, but presumably from the terrorists, and we made a couple of identifications immediately. And then a third one came at a later time.

FLATOW: You say in your book that--you describe working with the FBI as `an exasperating experience.'

Dr. SHALER: Yeah, well they--you know, the FBI is--has its own way of doing things and I guess getting approvals through the system is tedious and tough. And it's hard to work with them because they aren't always very cooperative. There's always something going on that--I don't know what it--it's hard to say what it is, but just getting them to work with you and cooperate is tough. You know, when this first happened they came right away and they wanted to help us set up this DNA network so that we could make identifications, but the system that had been set up was not geared toward making identifications in a mass disaster. It's geared toward identifying people who are in jail and who have left samples at crime scenes. So it doesn't--it didn't do the kinds of things that I wanted to have done and--or needed to have done. And so we had a meeting and we talked about these things and the best ways to get it done. And the FBI had their way--what they thought was the way to do it and we had--we learned that really wasn't the best way to go about it. And we found that to be true.

Getting the terrorists' DNA was another issue. It just took like a year to get it done and I could never understand why. Maybe they had to go out and go to the places where these people lived and actually collect samples and that took time. But I just don't know what took so long.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. What kind of samples did you have to work with? Were there a lot of tiny fragments? Were they big body parts? What were the majority of them?

Dr. SHALER: Well, they were both. We had, I think, 200 and some fairly intact bodies. These were torsos, top and bottom torsos, arms. We had arms, we had legs, we had feet, we had hands, we had heads. But the vast majority of the pieces were very small, like an inch of a bone or just some tissue, things like that.

FLATOW: You said that when you worked with bones even you, the grizzled forensic expert, had trouble with that.

Dr. SHALER: Yeah. You know, when you work in the forensic world you see some pretty strange things. And, you know, you get used to this. You get used to dead bodies. You get used to being in an autopsy room watching autopsies. I don't think I'd ever want to do an autopsy, but you still get used to seeing it. And you go to crime scenes and you see bodies. And you're used to smelling things that smell pretty bad sometimes. But it's isolated. It doesn't happen every day. But when you see this--it's like an endless stream of human destruction coming through the door and mounds of it and just piece after piece after piece of this, it wears you down.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Susan in San Francisco. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hello. Hello?

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

SUSAN: Hi. I was one of the attorneys who worked for the city attorney's office and was at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94. And I just wanted to say thank you for the work you did. It was an overwhelming experience. As you just said, it--the day after day was extremely draining but I also found it a tremendous opportunity to help other people in one of the most vulnerable positions anyone could be. There was a great compassion. I agree there was a great compassion to the work. There was a great sensitivity. Even the way this pier was transformed into a family assistance center, that the curtains--curtains created little rooms and police worked quietly in a little curtained room. And we attorneys interviewed families in our little areas.

The role of the attorneys--the Chief Medical Examiners Office I guess was technically our client--we were interviewing the families, helping them establish through sworn testimony that the loved one was missing and there was no body, had, in fact, died at the World Trade Center. So we were the ones who were helping them track down, apart from the DNA evidence, enough information for the family to go to court without a body and demon--prove to the court there was a--their loved one had died so they could go through the other necessary paperwork. It was--I mean, just listening to you speak, has brought a lot of tears and, again, I just wanted to say thank you. It was a wonderful opportunity and there was a lot of compassion, a lot of hard, hard dedication that went on for months and months and months to do as complete a job as possible for all those people.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

Dr. SHALER: Thank you.

SUSAN: Sure. Thank you, bye-bye.

FLATOW: Lot of compassion in that book.

Dr. SHALER: Well, I think that's what it was about. I think one of the things that we tend to forget when mass disasters or mass fatality events take place is that they're really all about people. Even Katrina is the same thing. We try to rescue the living first and then we try to recover the bodies so that we can return them to their families. You know, there's always going to be an economic loss because buildings are going to be damaged and the possessions of people are going to be lost. But when you come right down to it, it's about people and it's about families.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Jenn in Chattanooga. Hi, Jenn.

JENN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

JENN: I saw a program over the Christmas holiday about two women, one on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, who had some DNA testing, one for a transplant and one to determine paternity. And they both had really unique cases where they didn't match the DNA of their children. And they did a lot of investigation and determined that they actually had two separate strands of DNA within one person. And they had to look really hard to find in certain organs or certain body systems the DNA that didn't match and then to find the DNA that did match their family's. And I'm wondering if that's just sort of an emerging part of DNA science and whether anything--when you're trying to determine identity, if that's ever brought into consideration?

Dr. SHALER: You know, this is such a rare event that it certainly is puzzling when it happens, and, certainly, biologically, it's possible. And I'm--I know of those two cases you're talking about and they certainly created a lot of problems for those families and for the scientists involved because it becomes a real puzzle that has to be put back together. But there is a good scientific explanation for it and the reason for that mosaic problem that occurs; it's well-known. It's just extremely rare.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Mary in Madison, Wisconsin. Hi, Mary.

MARY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?

MARY: Good. I was just calling to thank the gentleman that you're speaking with today and to extend my thanks to all of his staff. I lost my brother on 9/11. I personally spent a fair amount of time in the Medical Examiner's Office of New York, both immediately after 9/11 and then some months and years after as they went through the process of identification, and they were able to identify my brother's remains, and we were able to bring them home. And I just wanted to call and say thank you.

Dr. SHALER: I'm glad we did that.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

MARY: Thank you.

Dr. SHALER: Thank you for calling.

FLATOW: Is there any unfinished work?

Dr. SHALER: Oh, yes. Like I said, there's over 1,100 people we have not yet identified and I don't think I'll ever feel good about not having--about being unsuccessful in not identifying them. But by the same token, I felt like we did everything we could have at the time. In that respect, I feel comfortable in what we did, but it's always unsettling when you can't finish the job you want to start--that you started.

FLATOW: Is it--will it never be solved because the samples, the DNA samples, are just not good enough anymore or could we pull them out with some kind of new technology?

Dr. SHALER: I think that there's new technology that could be used to analyze these samples sometime in the distant future. I think it's possible. There are some samples there still have DNA.

FLATOW: What are your thoughts about what to do with these remains that are not identified?

Dr. SHALER: Well, we have samples--or I had samples in the laboratory from each of the remains that were taken from the World Trade Center site and also from Staten Island. And these are frozen at minus 80 degrees in the laboratory. So these are available for reanalysis at some time in the future. The other remains, the larger pieces, have been dried, desiccated, if you will, and they are--and sealed so that they can't deteriorate any further. And these will be interred sometime at the memorial site when they build a new memorial in Lower Manhattan. And these will be accessible by personnel from the Medical Examiner's Office so that if families want those remains back, if new identifications are made, they'll be able to get their loved ones back.

FLATOW: Talking about identifying the remains still left over from the bombing of the World--the plane crashing in the World Trade Center on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

And we should not forget about the bombing that--the plane crashing that occurred in Washington that day also. So that's a different forensic problem?

Dr. SHALER: It's a similar forensic problem. You now, they made those identifications fairly quickly and that was done by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. And they did a great job. They also identified the people who died in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the night...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, OK.

Dr. SHALER: ...the people who died from that crash.

You know, there's one thing that is really bothersome about this and this has to do with the response of the federal government to the Katrina. And we've identified a huge void in our ability to mobilize resources to help people from natural disasters. The World Trade Center was a terrorist event and funding for that was immediate and fast and we were able to basically do anything we needed to do. The Katrina is an entirely different matter. It took such a long time to marshal the resources so that even the DNA process could begin. And it's just now beginning after all this time.

And what I've learned is that the National Incident Management System, the National Response System, has no provision for identifying the remains of people who die in mass disasters. And I think that's really a tragedy because the only thing it allows for is somebody to guard the remains. But there's nothing in the National Response Plan for handling the mortuary affairs that are required to return loved ones back to their families. And this is something that should be corrected. And it's in the National Response Plan now--I mean, it's not there.

FLATOW: Yeah, we've talked about what to do with the next either epidemic, outbreak, you know, the flu, whatever where hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people would die and one of the things that was brought up was what do you do with all--you know the mortuary situation, with the bodies?

Dr. SHALER: Well, it's a huge problem.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SHALER: And one of the lessons that's coming out of Katrina and the tsunami and the World Trade Center is that these processes take infinitely longer than the initial recovery or rescue operations. Years.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it's so--it takes money and it takes a plan--some plan to come up with.

Dr. SHALER: You have to have a plan in place. You have to have the mechanism to fund it, and then you have to find people who can do it.

FLATOW: Where would you--as someone who's been through this, what department would you put this under or would you create a whole separate department?

Dr. SHALER: Well, the obvious place would be Homeland Security, but apparently Homeland Security doesn't quite know what to do with--in the mortuary affairs business. So they've relegated it to Health and Human Services and they're kind of struggling to figure out what to do with it. So right now there's nobody who's willing to take up the baton and run with it. I think that Human Health--Health and Human Services could be a place to do it. It really doesn't matter where as long as somebody has the responsibility for it. Homeland Security--FEMA is under Homeland Security. That's where the money should be coming from. Whoever FEMA gives the money to, whether it's Health and Human Services or--it doesn't matter as long as it gets done.

FLATOW: Finally, you said--you talked about what a terrific journey this was, what an emotional journey this was for you. Where do you go from here?

Dr. SHALER: Well, like I said, I've embarked on this program at Penn State to create this forensic program, which is going to help students understand about these processes and what happens in mass disasters in addition to being just great forensic scientists. I believe that the solution to the preparedness problem is education. You know, we're spending an awful lot of money educating first responders and getting people--getting mass disaster plans in place, but nobody is considering what--the education of the young people coming up who might have to handle some of these in the future. You know, this--we could have another big one next year but it might be another 10 years before we have a big one and we'll have a whole new set of people in there who need to be educated. And I think that the education process begins with freshmen coming into college and you take them through graduate school and you prepare them to handle these things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SHALER: Because if they have a background for it nobody knows what's going to happen and every incident is going to be different, but there are certain basic things that you need to put into place and certain educational processes than need to be in place so that these young people have an idea of how to approach the problem. You can't define...

FLATOW: All right, Robert Shaler...

Dr. SHALER: ...exactly the problem, but you can tell--you can get them started.

FLATOW: And good luck to you in that effort.

Dr. SHALER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you very much for taking time to join us today. Robert Shaler, former director of Forensic Biology Department, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York. He's now the director of the forensics program and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University. His new book: "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing."


FLATOW: If you have comments, surf over to our Web site at ScienceFriday.com. SCIENCE FRIDAY Kids Connection is there, free teaching curricula. Just click on the `teachers' button. Also podcasting, you can download this or back issues of SCIENCE FRIDAY in case you missed them. Also, you can leave us e-mail there.

Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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