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Disaster Victims Identification in the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

Updated on October 20, 2013

Defining Terrorism

There are several basic elements which enable people to differentiate between a criminal act and an act of terrorism. Terrorists are not driven to commit crimes for financial gain. Their goals are political and are gained through violence, with their targets being civilians instead of military. Their targets are carefully selected, as is their timing in order to attract the maximum amount of attention, fear and distress possible.

The Al-Qaeda September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were planned with meticulous detail and executed to create the maximum amount of publicity as well as loss of civilian life as possible. Between the hours of 5:45am and 8am terrorists boarded four planes after passing through security checkpoints at airports. By 9am these flights left the airport and had veered off their flight path after being hijacked.


The September 11 Attacks

At 8:46am American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York City. At 9:03am United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre. By 9:30am all flights in the United States of America were cancelled and New York City airports were shut down. At 9:37am American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. Back in New York City, the south tower of the World Trade Centre collapses at 9:50am, followed by United Airlines Flight 93 crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. Evidence shows this plane was destined for the White House.

The north tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed at 10:28am and by 11am buildings in both New York City and Washington DC are ordered to be evacuated. The USA closed its borders with Canada and Mexico at 12:15pm in an effort to stop any other terrorists entering the country. An official announcement was made at 4pm declaring that Al-Qaeda was suspected in the attacks.

Over 2600 people died in the World Trade Centre attack when the planes hit the towers and then collapsed. 343 New York City Fire Department fire fighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers and 37 Port Authority Police Department officers also died while rescuing victims from the north and south towers. 125 people died in the Pentagon attack and 246 passengers and airline crew died in total along with the 19 hijackers.

Learn more about DVI in the September 11 attacks

Open and Closed Disasters

Terrorist attacks fall under the category of disasters. The definition of a disaster is an unexpected event which in turn causes the injury or death of many individuals. Disasters are categorised into two general types; closed disasters and open disasters. An open disaster results in the deaths of a great number of individuals, though the exact number is unknown due to no prior records or data available. A closed disaster differs in that a fixed and identifiable number of individuals can be ascertained. The September 11 attacks fall into both categories. A fixed number of flight crew and passengers could be established through passenger lists, yet the exact number of deaths that occurred on the day could not be established.

INTERPOL assists in major disasters and has an international guide available in the event of a disaster, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. The guide details the steps necessary from the initial occurrence of the disaster to the ending legal proceedings. Disaster Victims Identification (DVI) is a lengthy process involving many individuals from different areas of expertise. Police officers work with forensic pathologists, forensic odontologists, forensic anthropologists and other forensic scientists.


Disaster Victims Identification (DVI)

The actual process of Disaster Victims Identification falls into several separate areas. First there is management of the actual disaster. This involves establishing an overview of the situation. Disaster response teams were sent to the site of the attacks and an official agency or organisation assumes command of the operation as a whole. An advance team consisting of the head of the DVI team, two police officers and a forensic pathologist are then sent to the disaster sites as soon as possible to evaluate the situation. Their job is to determine the area extent of the scene, the state of the corpses, the evaluation of the duration of the process, the methodology to remove as well as transport and store the bodies found.

The commanding authority is in charge of the initial assessments relating to the scope of the damage, the number of casualties, transportation of the injured and dead, information about the number of missing persons, and property damage incurred.

Following this the next step of Disaster Victims Identification is recovery and evidence collection. Medical and dental experts are at the scene to assist the police in collecting body parts, in particular bones and teeth. From there forensic pathologists and other forensic medical experts complete the matching of separate body parts. Each body part should be labelled.


Reconciliation and Identification

One of the final steps is the reconciliation and actual identification of the victims, this is done using different methods. There are two main types of identification; circumstantial evidence which includes the identification of personal effects such as jewellery though this method can be unreliable. Physical evidence is the other method of identification. This is provided by an external examination which includes a description of general features, specific features such as scars, moles, birthmarks and tattoos along with fingerprinting, followed by an internal examination where possible.

Internal examination includes dental evidence, and other laboratory findings in tissues samples extracted for serology, toxicology and pathology experts to examine. A serologist is able to identify the isolate and identify the reactions between antigens and antibodies found in the blood group system which enables them to establish a blood type and the presence of any abnormalities in the blood sample. The role of a toxicologist is to establish the presence of any drugs found in the sample of tissue or bodily fluid they are working with. If specific medications are found in the remains, they may be matched to medical records of missing persons to assist in the identification process. The same can be done with the findings of a pathologist. If disease is present in the tissue sample victims it can also be matched to medical records. If evidence of medical procedures such as surgery, medical implants, or previously broken bones is able to be identified, it can then they too can be matched to medical records to assist in identification.

The use of visual identification of the victim is an inaccurate method of identification and generally avoided where possible. In the case of the September 11 attacks most of the bodies were too damaged or fragmented to allow this to occur. The primary and most reliable forms of identification are fingerprint analysis, DNA analysis, and dental analysis.

Fingerprint analysis is so reliable due to the fact that fingerprints are unique and do not change, despite injury. They can also be classified and registered systematically and thus subsequently retrieved easily for purposes of comparison.

DNA analysis is one of the most advantageous methods of identification as it allows an individual DNA "fingerprint" to be obtained from any biological sample, even if the victim's remains are fragmented and their DNA is degraded, which was the case in the remains of the September 11 victims. If a sufficient DNA sample can be obtained it can then be registered and matched to other fragmented remains as well as items from missing persons if the sample is also sufficient. A victim's toothbrush may contain a viable DNA sample due to the presence of cells on the toothbrush from the inside of the cheek. Other reference samples of DNA can include hairbrushes, razors though these samples taken from personal effects can be problematic due to the quantity of DNA able to be isolated for comparison. Samples can also be taken from biological relatives for comparison and banked samples from the mission person, such as banked sperm, or biopsy tissue or blood samples stored in medical facilities. Several of the fire fighters who died in the attacks were identified through DNA analysis. Their remains were matched with preserved blood samples from their medical files.

Directly after the attacks doctors, forensic pathologists, anthropologists and dentists worked to catalog body parts and take fingerprints, tooth prints and x-rays where possible in order to allow identification of as many victims as possible in the shortest time possible. Thousands of the families of victims gave samples of hair and saliva in order to match DNA extracted from almost 20,000 body parts found in over 2 million tons of debris from the attacks.

Learn more about forensics and DVI


For more than three years scientists worked to identify as many victims as possible and although Disaster Victims Identification and forensic science technology has rapidly and extensively advanced since their origins, there remain over 1000 victims yet to be identified from the September 11 terrorist attacks. The remains of fifty seven percent of victims were identified through either DNA analysis, dental records or personal effects such as jewellery. The unidentified remains, which totals 9270 individual samples, will be placed in a memorial for the victims of the disaster. Though if technological advances allow the potential for further identification to occur at a later date these samples will still be accessible to forensic scientists.

The difficulty in identifying these remains is due to a number of factors. The sheer number of victims, the duration of the recovery process and the condition of the victims remains found all contributed to the inability to identify the remaining victims. New York City has since implemented policies and procedures for identifying mass disaster victims which were not part of their mass disaster plan prior to 2001.



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    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 

      4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      A sad day for us all.

      What makes it even sadder is the science done by independent investigators that shows 9/11 to have been an inside job -- a false flag operation by Americans against Americans to stir up sentiment against Muslims. Why? I suspect Cheney made millions off of the Haliburton contract in Iraq. The power brokers finally had an American foothold in the Middle East, something the NeoCons had talked about a year earlier in their infamous report.

      Perhaps the most startling scientific fact involves the perfect free fall collapse (first 8 floors) of WTC7 at 5:20pm on 9/11. Free fall means Zero resistance, and solid steel Never offers Zero resistance.

      I believed the official "conspiracy theory" for a decade. While government scientists are covering up things, thousands of independent scientists, engineers and architects have added their voice to the work at

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Very interesting and informative analysis of the sources of disaster and the intensive analysis that occurs afterward. I suppose that 12 years after 9/11 the experts are still unraveling mysteries about it. Great hub!


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