by Christopher C. Kelly
November 30, 2001
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
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What some experts have called "the most comprehensive forensic investigation in U.S. history" ended Nov. 16 with the identification of 184 of the 189 who died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
A multidisciplinary team of more than 50 forensic specialists, scientists, and support personnel from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, with headquarters at Walter Reed, played a major role in Operation Noble Eagle investigations, officials said.
Many of the casualties were badly burned and difficult to identify, an official said. Of the 189 killed, 125 worked at the Pentagon and 64 were passengers on American Airlines Flight 77. Only one of those who died made it to the hospital. The rest were killed on site, and for some, only pieces of tissue could be found.
AFIP's team of forensic pathologists, odontologists, a forensic anthropologist, DNA experts, investigators, and support personnel worked for over two weeks in the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., and for weeks at the DNA lab in Rockville, to identify the victims of the attack.
"Our staff represented every branch of the service," said AFIP Director Navy Capt. Glenn N. Wagner. "We also received tremendous support from the doctors, nurses, and technicians stationed at Dover who participated in the investigation."
The investigation mobilized AFIP assets in many ways. In the hours following the crash Sept. 11, the acting armed forces medical examiner, Air Force Col. AbuBakr Marzouk, worked with FBI and local Virginia law enforcement officials to create a plan for recovering and identifying the victims.
At the same time, personnel from the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner positioned and staged equipment to begin operations at Dover. Air Force Maj. Bruce Ensign served as AFIP's team leader at the site.
"We immediately called in regional medical examiners from as far away as San Diego to participate," Ensign said. A total of 12 forensic pathologists, assisted by two AFIP staff pathologists, headed the investigation team. Also arriving at Dover during those early critical hours were two other key AFIP groups: forensic scientists from OAFME's Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and oral pathologists from the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology.
AFDIL scientists ensured data systems and records were available to make DNA identifications, while the oral pathology group created a triage area to conduct positive dental identifications. Contacts were also made with family services in each branch of the military to obtain ante-mortem information and reference material. Mortuary operations were fully underway by the evening of Sept. 13. AFIP used a well-defined and tested system for conducting the identifications of the Pentagon victims. When remains arrived at the morgue, a scanning device searched for the presence of unexploded ordnance or metallic foreign bodies. A computerized tracking system assigned numbers to each victim for efficient tracking.
FBI experts collected trace evidence to search for chemicals from explosive devices and conducted fingerprint identifications. Forensic dentistry experts from the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology performed dental charting and comparison with ante-mortem dental records. Full-body radiographs followed to document skeletal fractures and assist in the identification process, followed by autopsy inspection.
At autopsy, forensic pathologists determined the cause and manner of death, aided by forensic anthropologist Dr. William C. Rodriguez in determining the race, sex, and stature of victims. A board-certified epidemiologist managed the tracking system for data collected during the autopsy process, and tissue samples were collected for DNA identification and further toxicology studies. Forensic photographers, essential to any forensic investigation, documented injuries and personal effects. Mortuary specialists then embalmed, dressed, and casketed remains prior to release to next-of-kin.
For eight days a full complement of AFIP forensic specialists worked 12-hour shifts to complete the operation.
"This is the largest mass fatality we've dealt with in recent years," Ensign said. "We have modalities today that we didn't have before. Our investigation was much more technology-intensive." Ensign noted the entire team worked well together. "Because of the combined effort of all three services and the FBI, we were very pleased with the speed of the identification process. Essential records and references were submitted to us in a timely way."
Logistical help from AFIP also played an important role. "We had tremendous logistical issues obtaining equipment, especially with additional demands in New York City and Somerset County, Pa.," he said. "Fortunately our logistical support was terrific in helping us get material in." The Dover mortuary sent specimens back to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville.
Teams of forensic scientists, under the direction of Demris Lee, technical leader of the Nuclear DNA Section, took over the difficult chore of generating a DNA profile of the victims. Their work included not only the Pentagon crash victims, but the victims of the Somerset County crash as well. Every one of the organization's 102 DNA analysts, sample processors, logistics staff, and administrative personnel were involved -- from collecting, tracking, analyzing DNA samples, and gathering and logging DNA reference material to preparing DNA reports. For 18 days following the terrorist attacks, AFDIL employees worked on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week to meet the mission requirements.