|9/11 Panel Makes Recommendations for DNA-Based Identification
After Mass Disasters
Team Effort Successfully Identified 850 World Trade Center Victims
Bethesda, Maryland — Only days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks
on the World Trade Center, the National Institutes of Justice convened a panel
of experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other institutions,
asking them to serve as an advisory panel to develop a process to identify victims
using DNA collected at the site of the tragedy. Today, in an article published
in the journal Science, the panel reports that DNA-based efforts led to the identification
of more than one-quarter of those reported missing. The article also makes recommendations
to improve DNA identification in event of future terrorist attacks or mass disasters.
In their Science paper, panel members report that they have been able to identify
about 850 of the 2,749 people reported missing after the World Trade Center attacks
based solely on DNA results. In conjunction with New York City’s chief medical
examiner, the panel has determined that no further identifications can be made
at this time using the DNA samples collected.
The Kinship and Data Analysis Panel (KADAP) included two senior investigators
from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the NIH. Leslie
G. Biesecker, M.D., a medical geneticist and the first author of the paper, provided
expert advice about kinship analysis, communicating relevant information about
genetic testing to the families, and human subject issues. Joan E. Bailey-Wilson,
Ph.D., a statistical geneticist, furnished the team with the statistical expertise
necessary to reduce the risk of misidentifications.
“This effort presented the group with some overwhelming challenges in the face
of such an unprecedented tragedy, but they came together at this time of national
crisis and developed a process that provided better results than many would have
expected. We owe them a debt of gratitude for providing the scientific expertise
and compassion needed to help families and friends identify their loved ones,” said
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.
KADAP was organized and funded by the National Institute of Justice, an agency
of the U.S. Department of Justice, based on a request from New York City’s chief
medical examiner. The New York State Police Forensics Identification Center was
responsible for analyzing any reference DNA samples and several private laboratories
tested samples from the World Trade Center site. The final identifications were
made by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of New York City. The panel included
experts in forensics, bioinformatics, molecular and medical genetics, and statistical
and population genetics.
“It was a significant challenge, but the group was dedicated to the difficult
task at hand. Our motivation was to help the medical examiner return to the families
physical remains of their family members who perished in the World Trade Center
attacks to assist them in the long and difficult process of grieving,” said Dr.
“I’m very proud of the NHGRI researchers who contributed their time and scientific
expertise to this effort during our nation’s time of need,” said NHGRI Scientific
Director Eric D. Green, M.D, Ph.D.
In addition to NHGRI, KADAP had members from the National Institute of Justice;
National Center for Biotechnology Information, NIH; New York City Office of Chief
Medical Examiner; New York State Police; University of Central Florida, Orlando;
Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston; Federal Bureau
of Investigation, Quantico, Va.; National Institute of Standards and Technology,
Gaithersburg, Md.; Carleton University, Ottawa; Indiana University School of
Medicine, Indianapolis; University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort
Worth, Texas.; Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Myriad Genetics, Salt Lake
City; Niezgoda Consulting, Annandale, Va.; Armed Forces Institute of Pathology;
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; N.Y. State Department of Health; and DNA
Technology Consulting Services, LLC Fairfax Station, Va.
Most of the identifications were made using a standard testing method used in
forensic science. However, because some of the DNA samples were not in perfect
condition, several technical improvements had to be made to provide more useful
DNA samples. In addition, other methods of DNA identification were used to assist
in the effort.
The panel also makes suggestions on how to improve DNA-based identification
efforts in the event of any future mass disasters or terrorist attacks. KADAP
members recommend that, based on their experience with the World Trade Center
effort, similar panels should identify the criteria for determining when an identification
effort should be concluded, especially if it is deemed that no further progress
can be made. Other recommendations include: conducting more research to develop
more sensitive forensic DNA typing systems; improving software to integrate analytical,
database and workflow functions; and designing processes to test and validate
novel identification procedures as they are being developed.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, no infrastructure existed for the rapid
identification of large disasters with more than 500 victims. Previously, many
mass fatality identification efforts, such as those following airline crashes,
began with a finite list of victims. However, in the case of the World Trade
Center attacks, the exact number and identity of the victims was unknown.
More than 20,000 tissue fragments were collected at the site — all of
which had to be catalogued and analyzed. Researchers found that the DNA derived
from the tissue fragments was often mixed with inorganic building material. In
addition, much of the DNA was compromised due to exposure to horrific conditions
at the disaster site, including temperatures exceeding 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Complicating matters further was the need for reference DNA samples to compare
with DNA from tissue found at the World Trade Center site. Panel members moved
rapidly to develop the forms and kits needed to enable the medical examiner’s
office to collect reference DNA from victims’ previously stored medical specimens,
such as blood; victims’ personal effects, such as hair brushes; or from the blood
or cheek swabs of their next of kin. The kit included a brochure, “How DNA Can
help Identify Individuals,” which was developed by NHGRI and NIJ, and adopted
as part of the President’s DNA initiative, a five-year, $1 billion commitment
to improve the nation's capacity to use DNA evidence. This brochure has been
utilized by other state medical examiner offices and in foreign countries.
A new information technology infrastructure had to be established to optimize
data transfer between the state police and medical examiner’s office, as well
as to interconnect the databases and analytical tools used by panel members.
In addition, a data repository was established at the National Center for Biotechnology
Information of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., which could
be used by analysts outside of the medical examiner’s office. Software companies
were hired to create new tools for matching the DNA fingerprints of victims’ samples
to those of next-of-kin or other reference samples. There was a low tolerance
for errors and the group set stringent statistical thresholds to make the identifications
with high confidence.
The NIJ plans to publish its own report outlining lessons learned from the work
of the panel to serve as a model for other mass casualty DNA investigations.
Authorities have already used the report to help identify victims of last year’s
South Asian Tsunami and of Hurricane Katrina.
NHGRI is one of the 27 institutes and centers at the NIH, an agency of the
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Additional information about
NHGRI can be found at its Web site, www.genome.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.