Morgue Gears Up to Identify Remains
By Avram Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2001; Page B05
Somber recovery crews began collecting human remains from the smoldering rubble of the Pentagon yesterday as military medical examiners prepared to identify hundreds of victims.
Because many of the bodies disintegrated or were severely burned Tuesday when a hijacked jetliner slammed into the west side of the building, experts will have to use a variety of scientific methods to identify victims, physicians said.
A crew of about 75 military pathologists, dental experts and DNA scientists will be assigned to the job, and reinforcements will be called in from the military and civilian medical communities if necessary, said Christopher C. Kelly, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
The operation will be headed by the institute's director, Navy Capt. Glenn N. Wagner.
The examinations will be done in the port mortuary at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, which can handle hundreds of examinations a day. That mortuary has examined mass casualties from the Beirut Marine Corps barracks bombing, the Guyana mass suicide and the Nairobi embassy bombing.
"There is no other place in this country that's as well set up to do mass examinations of human remains," said Victor Weedn, a forensic pathologist and a former chief deputy medical examiner for the institute.
"We are prepared to be able to handle in the hundreds over a number of hours," Kelly said. "It's the ideal place to do this kind of work. We're prepared to look at highly fragmented remains and to utilize the DNA expertise we have there."
Because of its role in investigating acts of terrorism, the FBI will lead the investigation on the Pentagon grounds, Kelly said. In addition to its criminal focus, the FBI's fingerprint expertise will be helpful in identifying victims, he said.
A Salvation Army consultant who worked inside the Pentagon all day yesterday said authorities set up an interim morgue in an interior courtyard. Bernie Dake said he saw about a dozen body bags brought from the debris by rescue workers and laid in a grid in the courtyard by midday. By last night, several sets of remains -- borne on stretchers -- were being delivered to refrigerated trucks parked on the perimeter of the building.
"They don't look like corpses," Dake said of the remains delivered to the courtyard. "They look like small bags with remains inside."
Dake said teams of rescue workers entered the damaged area for about an hour at a time and took 15-minute breaks. "The mood there is somber," Dake said. "Many of them are in tears."
Giant Food lent two refrigerated trailers to the Defense Department for storage of remains until they can be taken to Dover. The remains must be kept between 38 and 43 degrees to preserve them. No bodies are expected to arrive in Dover until today at the earliest.
The decision to use the military pathologists came after a behind-the-scenes tug of war with Virginia Chief Medical Examiner Marcella Fierro. Arguing that the state forensic pathologists had jurisdiction over the Pentagon's land, she reassigned staff members from three other regional offices to the Northern Virginia office on Braddock Road to prepare for the onslaught of postmortem exams.
"We're in a state of readiness right now," said Rochelle Altholz, state administrator of the agency.
But later in the day, she said the Defense Department informed Fierro that federal law calls for the military to take jurisdiction.
Kelly said he was not certain who made the decision.
Charles J. Stahl, the institute's retired chief medical examiner, predicted the investigation will be extremely complicated. Investigators from the institute will have to coordinate activities with the Defense Department, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, several disaster mortuary operational response teams and the civilian medical examiners in Virginia, the District and Maryland.
A key advantage in identifying military personnel is that all are required to give blood samples for the institute's DNA repository, Stahl said.
To identify civilians, the medical examiners will rely more on dental records and fingerprints, Stahl said. Reliable DNA samples from civilians -- such as hair, blood or saliva -- also could be compared with remains collected at the Pentagon, but that isn't as easy to arrange, he said.
Weedn said samples should be aggressively collected from the civilians.
"It really makes sense to start going to the families right off the bat and show them they can help in the identification process by providing some DNA samples," he said.