‘We don’t stop’: he watched it. Now, after 20 years, a professor is still identifying 9-11 Ground Zero human remains.10 September 2021
Jerry Carino of Asbury Park Press
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mark Desire was working on a Brooklyn murder case when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers. He was 33 years old and four years into his tenure with New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Within minutes, he was on the scene at Ground Zero.
“Our mission was to preserve the evidence,” Desire said. “Our job was to set up a temporary morgue and command post and do our best — and not get killed by falling debris.”
He almost did. His four-man crew was working a stone’s throw from the south tower when it collapsed.
“Luckily my team survived, but we were pretty banged up,” Desire said. “My left foot was shattered, and I had a concussion.”
He reported for work the following day. His supervisor, noting his condition, gave him a job he could do sitting down.
“I got assigned to working with the families to make DNA identifications,” Desire said.
Twenty years later, he’s still doing it.
Attempting to identify remains
The High Bridge, Hunterdon County, resident, who also teaches criminal justice courses at Rutgers University, leads the team of forensic biologists identifying human remains found at ground zero. Of the 21,905 remains collected, one-third (7,155) haven’t been matched with a specific person.
“I get asked all the time, ‘In 20 years, you still haven’t finished this?’” Desire said. “We have finished it. All those remains have been attempted. What we do is, we advance the technology and then attempt again.”
Now an assistant director at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, Desire is last member of the original forensics team still plugging away. Some of his colleagues were in fifth grade when the towers fell.
“I’m very proud to work here,” he said. “That commitment 20 years later is as great as it was back in 2001. We’re not going to quit. We don’t stop.”
Learning from failure
On the morning of Sept, 12, 2001, Desire starting making 20,000 case files.
“That was the initial fatality number we were given,” he said.
Over time the number whittled down to the final count: 2,753. Desire’s team has identified remains of 1,647 of those victims. That leaves 1,106 victims (40%) without any remains identified.
“Very quicky we knew DNA was going to be the major ID modality,” Desire said. “There were very few people who were intact, where you could visually ID them. Dental records and fingerprints, there were very few (identifiable that way) because of the fragmentation.”
In some cases, Desire said, “there were hundreds of pieces of one person, very small, the size of Tic-Tacs scattered throughout the blocks where the World Trade Center was.”
In other cases, he said, “I tend to think there were victims where there’s nothing to recover. They were basically cremated.”
DNA testing, which requires samples provided by the victim’s family — from a used toothbrush or razor, for example — has accounted for roughly 90% of successful identifications. At this point, Desire said, his team makes about 100 identifications in a typical year, “and almost all of them are going to be previous identifications, where the families already received something.”
He said the last positive ID for a previously unidentified victim took place in 2019. In 2020, COVID-related duties became a priority; all of Desire’s team members have other forensics responsibilities. But an emerging DNA-testing method called “next generation sequencing” might unlock information from samples too degraded to be analyzed in the past.
“The technology today, if you asked me about it back in 2001, I would have said, ‘That sounds like science fiction,’” Desire said.
New York City’s forensic biology department has its own research and development unit. Desire said advances they’ve made in the quest to identify ground zero remains have changed the entire field, solving cold cases from the 1960s and drug-cartel murders in Mexico.
“If something big and bad happens someplace in the world, New York City is going to get a call to help out, and we share what we know,” Desire said. “The World Trade Center work has pushed forensics into the future.”
As a professor, Desire said there’s a lesson drawn from this ongoing task that he imparts on students.
“It’s about never giving up,” he said. “I tell my students, you’re never going to reach your potential if you don’t fail. We’ve had 20 years of failure and we don’t give up. Learn from your failures and use them.”
‘Unheard of in forensic science’
Desire was trained to keep emotion out of his work.
“That’s the No. 1 rule,” he said. “You certainly don’t meet the families of victims. That holds true, except for the World Trade Center.”
His team’s relationships with families has been a key part of acquiring the necessary DNA samples.
“In our lab we’ll have World Trade Center families come in and tour and meet scientists,” Desire said. “That’s unheard of in forensic science.”
Desire’s team is careful to abide by families’ wishes. Some want to be notified every time remains from their loved one is identified. Others ask to be updated just once a year. Others don’t want to be contacted at all; those remains are placed into a private repository at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which is located at ground zero.
The times when Desire does make that phone call, especially to a family who had no remains of the person they lost, the gravity of his work is inescapable.
“When you hold a piece of someone in your hand that you’ve just identified — it’s taken ten times of going back to it (with new technology) — and you’re able to return that loved one to their family. They’re crying, hugging you and thanking you for bringing their little boy home,” he said. “That’s really powerful.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the New Jersey shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues.