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Unidentified Victims of Sept. 11 Will Be Preserved in Memorial

By Michael Slackman

The New York Times -- NEW YORK

The remains of more than a thousand victims who died in the attack on the World Trade Center will be preserved in a memorial space built at ground zero, in the hope that science will advance to the point that they can be identified, according to city and state officials.

Many relatives of victims killed in the attack have long asked that unidentified remains be interred at the former World Trade Center site. The challenge was to accommodate that wish in a way that did not complicate the project design, but that did preserve the viability of the remains for future scientific study.

Investigators have been so far unable to identify more than 12,000 remains -- from body parts weighing as much as 100 pounds to those as small as a tooth or a bone chip -- because in most cases the DNA, the genetic code unique to each individual, was too badly damaged, said Shiya Ribowsky, the deputy director of investigation for the medical examiner’s office.

Faced with the limitations of modern science, the medical examiner’s office has adopted an approach similar to one relied on thousands of years ago. The remains are being slowly dried, and when they are free of moisture, they will be vacuum sealed in white opaque pouches, Ribowsky said.

This will relieve the memorial designers of having to include a refrigeration or freezer system in their plans and will ultimately do a better job of preserving the remains for future study, he said.

“Our job isn’t to inter them and forget about them,” Ribowsky said of the remains. “Our job is to inter them and if technology changes in the future, and we have a better chance to identify them, we will have to keep and preserve the remains in such a way that we can use this new technology.”

In the nearly two years since the collapse of the trade center towers, the medical examiner’s office has worked to match the 19,936 remains recovered with the 2,792 people listed as missing. The main tool they used was DNA. Relatives brought DNA samples of loved ones -- for example, hair collected from an old brush -- to match against samples taken from the remains. As of Aug. 21, 12,471 remains, or 63 percent, and 1,271 victims, or 46 percent, had not been identified.

“Nobody is happy with the thought of leaving so many people unidentified, not the families, not us,” Ribowsky said. “It’s the reality.”

Many of those who lost family and friends in the terrorist strike said that they understood the situation and welcomed the plan to preserve the remains and to store them at a permanent memorial at ground zero.

“Right now I can look up at the sky and talk to him, but I can’t go anywhere and reflect on his life,’ said Lorie Van Auken, 48, whose husband, Ken, was on the 105th floor of the north tower on Sept. 11.