9/11: New technology identifies 1,641st victim

The Falling Man: The subject of this haunting photograph has not yet been identified. © Getty

On Monday, a man killed in the September 11th attacks was finally identified by new DNA technology. Why is it taking so long? And is identifying remains a sacred duty of civilisation?

It had been two years since the identity of a victim of the September 11th attacks had been successfully established.

But on Monday, the remains of a man killed on that fateful day were positively identified, according to the New York City medical examiner’s office. The man’s name has been withheld at his family’s request.

He is the 1,641st person to be identified, meaning that the remains of 40% are still anonymous 16 years after the attack, despite the most expensive forensic operation in US history (over $80m so far).

The latest victim was identified thanks to recently developed advanced forensic methods. “This ongoing work is vital because with each new identification, we are able to bring answers to families affected by tremendous loss,” said Dr Barbara Sampson, the city’s chief medical examiner.

Days after the attack, the then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, pledged that the authorities would do “whatever it took to identify the source of every single human remain recovered from the WTC site, no matter how small”.

As Shaoni Bhattacharya writes in The New Scientist: “The science of mass death is no easy thing to read or write about,” but it can “give us valuable insights into the way politics, technology and a flood of grief can alter our perceptions of how we treat the dead.”

A book written last year discusses just that. Jay Aronson’s Who Owns the Dead is a harrowing account of the operation to identify the 2,753 people killed at the World Trade Centre. Just 293 bodies were found intact, and over 21,900 bits of remains were recovered from the debris, many of which were found years later.

The book then moves on to the politics of remembering the dead. As Aronson says: “Human remains have political, cultural and emotional power.”

For example, the 9/11 memorial’s emphasis on individuals (the names of victims are carved into bronze parapets around the memorial’s pools) is designed to repudiate the terrorists’ murderous disregard for life.

Do the authorities have a sacred duty to identify every last victim?

Remembering the fallen

“Of course they do,” say many people. The authorities have a duty to help bring some form of closure to over a thousand families who still have no remnants of their loved ones to bury. Remembering the dead individually is how civilised people maintain their humanity in the face of the worst of human evil.

But at the end of his book, Aronson makes an uncomfortable point. He writes that the “individualisation of victims… has made it more politically palatable for the US… to engage in a seemingly perpetual war,” causing havoc all over the Middle East. By increasing our compassion, we also increase our desire for revenge.

You Decide

  1. Is identifying every single 9/11 victim a moral obligation for the authorities?
  2. Is 9/11 the most significant event of the 21st century so far?


  1. Design a 9/11 memorial that concentrates less on the individual dead, and more on the attack in general.
  2. Imagine that you were an eyewitness on September 11th. Write a diary entry about what you saw and how you felt that day.

Some People Say...

“Remembering the dead is the most important thing a human can do.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On Monday the New York City medical examiner’s office announced that it had successfully identified the remains of a man who was killed in 9/11. The man, whose name has not been disclosed at his family’s request, is the 1,461st victim of the attacks at the World Trade Centre to be identified, meaning that the names of 40% are still unknown. The man was identified thanks to recently developed improvements in forensic science.
What do we not know?
How many more bodies can be identified. The gruesome reality of 9/11 is that it is almost impossible to identify everyone. The blast resulting from the planes hitting the towers meant that body parts were scattered everywhere, while the police were understandably inexperienced in the mass gathering of biological samples.

Word Watch

Two years
Matthew David Yarnell was a 26-year-old employee of Fiduciary Trust Company International. He lived in Jersey City and worked on the 97th floor of the south tower. The last successful identification before him was Patrice Braut, the only Belgian citizen to die in the attacks.
Of the 2,743 people who died at the World Trade Centre. In total, 2,996 people died on 9/11 (including 19 hijackers). Those who died at the Pentagon and on United Airlines Flight 93 have all been successfully identified.
Advanced forensic methods
These same methods have been used to identify victims of the 1990s genocide in Bosnia, when Serb troops systematically killed Bosnian Muslims.
Rudy Giuliani
Mayor of New York from 1994 until the end of 2001, Giuliani started life as a Democrat before becoming a Republican in the 1980s. He is now an informal adviser on cybersecurity to the White House.
An acronym for the World Trade Centre, referring to the two towers which were destroyed in the attacks.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.