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|September 11-17, 2008
Seven years later
For some Sept. 11 families, wait continues for remains of relatives
by Jennifer Lin
Judi Reiss was deciding what to cook for dinner on July 15 when the phone rang in the kitchen of her Lower Makefield, Pa., home.
The voice was official.
“This is the Medical Examiner’s Office of the City of New York,” the woman said.
Judi’s throat tightened. Her eyes filled. She knew what would come next. She had been through this before.
“We have more remains of your son, Joshua. A metatarsal bone.”
“That’s a foot bone?”
The room blurred as her mind snapped back to another morning in that kitchen, seven years before, when she prayed for her son to escape his burning office.
The work of identifying the 21,741 fragments of human remains from the wreckage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, continues today with the same determination as before.
Mary Fetchet, a founder of the family support group Voices of September 11th, has gotten six calls, the most recent in May. Each announced that a piece of tissue or bone had been linked to her 24-year-old son, Brad.
After the first time, some families asked not to be notified again. But not Reiss; not Fetchet. “As a mother, I would want at some point to bury as much of my son as I could,” said Fetchet, of New Canaan, Conn.
For the nation, the memory of that day fades with each year. But for 1,126 families without remains, the wait continues for science to deliver them evidence of their relatives.
The identification process is slow. Since 2006, only 22 new people have been identified through DNA matching of remains. But the pace does not matter, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner’s Office.
New York’s chief medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, has made a commitment to families to do whatever he can, to use whatever new technology is available, Borakove said. Of the 2,751 victims of the trade center attack, 1,625 have been identified.
Not long after Sept. 11, the Reiss family returned to Josh’s apartment on West 57th Street.
Josh was the second of five children of Judi and Gary, who own men’s clothing stores in Trenton and Ewing, N.J. A bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, Josh was 23, earning six figures and living large in Manhattan.
At his apartment, the family gathered up his toothbrush, his hairbrush, even his underwear — all items requested by the Medical Examiner’s Office for DNA testing.
At New York’s Lexington Avenue Armory, which became a center for families of victims, everyone in the Reiss family had his or her mouth swabbed.
DNA samples would prove to be the most important tool for investigators, used solely or jointly in 88 percent of the identifications.
A few months after Sept. 11, workers at ground zero found Josh’s company ID, which he usually clipped to his belt. A little later, they recovered his wallet with its credit cards and some money.
Police did not return the wallet to the family, but did issue a check for the amount inside. “Down to the penny,” said Judi, 59.
Then, in May 2002, Judi and Gary were taking their daughter to a bat mitzvah in New Jersey when their youngest son, Jon, called Judi’s cell phone.
“They found Josh,” he told her.
Gary swung the car to the side of the road. The news they had craved and dreaded engulfed them in renewed grief.
The family buried Josh at Ewing Cemetery. According to Jewish custom, his remains — most likely part of his torso — were shrouded in white. His gravestone is etched with an image of the twin towers.
Less than a year later, the family got a second call from the medical examiner.
Judi didn’t know what to do. How do you handle a second burial? “There are no Jewish laws for this, no traditions,” she said. “Am I supposed to sit shiva again?”
This time, the Reisses did not go to the gravesite for a second burial. Their rabbi from Adath Israel in Lawrenceville, N.J., Daniel Grossman, advised them not to.
“It was just too much for me,” Judi said.
In midtown Manhattan, a big tent sits on a former parking lot next to the medical examiner’s offices near First Avenue and 30th Street. The site is called Memorial Park.
Inside are humidity-controlled metal closets for storing pouches of remains. Each pouch is identified with a bar code and number.
Once the city finishes a permanent memorial for victims at ground zero, items still not identified will be moved there, Borakove said. Currently, there are 9,519 unidentified fragments.
The destruction of the World Trade Center pushed to the limits the ability of forensic investigators to identify victims. Fewer than 300 bodies were recovered intact.
Investigators have used DNA, dental X-rays, fingerprints, photos, tattoos, body X-rays and photos to identify remains.
In early 2005, Hirsch, the medical examiner, announced to families that his office had gone as far as it could with available technology. But he was careful to say the investigation had “paused,” not ended.
Robert C. Shaler, who was in charge of DNA identification of World Trade Center victims and now directs the forensic science department at Pennsylvania State University, said investigators had to wait for technology to catch up with them.
“The families were critical. It was their grief and continued support and emotions that infiltrated every part of my soul,” Shaler said. “They’re the ones who kept us going.”
He said investigators could have easily stopped after the first year, but “we just kept plugging away and trying to get more and more information out of those ... pieces of tissue and bone.”
Technology did catch up. In January 2006, the Medical Examiner’s Office resumed sampling, employing new methods for extracting DNA from compromised bone samples. A new computer system used principles of probability to interpret data.
At the same time, hundreds of new remains were found on the roof of the Deutsche Bank building and at other locations around ground zero.
With the process beginning anew, investigators matched an additional 758 specimens to individuals who had previously been identified.
One of those was Josh Reiss.
The gravesite was opened again.
Judi said her religion prevented her from refusing to take possession of any of her son’s remains. Jewish law, she said, dictates that the body cannot be desecrated.
“I want him,” she said.
It’s like the ongoing search for remains of soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. The World Trade Center was attacked, and families want evidence that their relatives lived — and died.
For Sept. 11 families, there is an added dimension that is hard to suppress. It is wanting to know what happened in those last moments.
Judi has a theory about Josh. Like a forensic detective, she has looked at the evidence — the company ID card, the intact wallet, the large amount of remains.
She has concluded that her son probably jumped. “I can see him taking a chance that something might break his fall rather than just waiting to die,” Judi said.
Oddly, that gives her some consolation.
“I’d like to know he went down fighting.”
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