Global Health Nexus, Winter 2002

Practicing for LifeSM: The Role of the Forensic Dentist in the Aftermath of the WTC Attacks

As Chief Dental Consultant to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME), I have long felt that the well-known motto of the Boy Scouts of America, “be prepared,” applies equally well to the group of 22 forensic dentists, including myself, who belong to the Dental Multiple Victim Identification Unit of the OCME. Most members of the OCME dental unit have worked together on a number of multiple fatality incidents. On a routine basis, many are involved in civil and criminal cases which require us to identify human remains, document child abuse injuries through bite mark analysis, and provide expert testimony in court. We are on call seven-days-a-week, 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC), our unit has spent an unprecedented amount of time at the Medical Examiner’s (ME’s) Office. Members of the OCME dental team have put their private practices and personal lives on hold in order to perform the arduous task not only of identifying the WTC victims, but also those who perished in the crash of American Airlines flight 587 to the Dominican Republic. Our unit gathers the dental records and X rays of those reported missing. Distinguishing characteristics from those X rays — such as fillings, crowns, or missing teeth — are noted on a diagram of the teeth. This information is next fed into a computer program. Separate dental X rays are taken when the unidentified victims are brought in. Distinguishing characteristics from those X rays are noted on another diagram and entered into the computer system. The program then analyzes both sets of diagrams and looks for matches between the dentists’ records and the X rays of the victims. Dental identifications can be as accurate as DNA or fingerprints.

The most senior members of our team serve as Tour Commanders responsible for the daily operations that include identification of remains, computer tracking of ante- and postmortem records, and quality insurance. Tour commanders are also responsible for all voluntary personnel and for the Disaster Mortuary Operation Rescue Team (DMORT), which is composed of members of the Department of Health and Human Services-National Disaster Medical System who have been assigned to New York to assist and support the OCME’s dental identification unit. At times, there were as many as 40 DMORT members assisting our unit.

While the support provided by DMORT has been invaluable in this most difficult time for all Americans, the number of offers to volunteer with our unit, from dentists, hygienists, assistants, and other members of the dental team — both locally and nationally — has been especially appreciated

The devastation unleashed on September 11 has created a mind-boggling, soul-searing task for forensic dentists. We understand that because of the magnitude of the carnage, many of the missing may never be found or identified. But we never lose sight of the fact that although we are mired in the circumstances of death, we are nevertheless “practicing for life,”SM because through forensic identification we are helping to restore individuality and dignity to as many victims as possible and a sense of peace to their families and friends.