- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

After the funeral of a close friend, Sarah Clark stood in front of the urn holding her friend's ashes, brushing her fingers across it.
"She said, 'If I go first, I'd like to be cremated and have a nice urn like this,'" said her fiance, John Milton Wesley.
Less than two weeks later, Miss Clark, 65, of Columbia, Md., died when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the side of the Pentagon. The crash caused part of the building to collapse, and the plane set off fires with its load of jet fuel.
True to Miss Clark's wishes, Mr. Wesley has bought an urn. But he still has nothing to put in it.
"I'd be happy with anything they can find," he said.
Investigators combing through the wreckage wrought by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have found a lot thousands of human remains were recovered from the rubble of the Pentagon, World Trade Center and the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pa.
But due to the massive destruction caused by the attacks, remains are often no more than a chip of bone or a shred of human tissue. That means for many families, there is only one chance of identifying their loved ones through their DNA.
A positive identification serves both legal and emotional needs. It is usually necessary for the prompt issuance of a death certificate and it gives families something to bury, a tangible part of a loved one to mourn.
Samples of all unidentified remains gathered from the Pentagon and the Somerset County site have been sent to a federal laboratory in Rockville.
Tucked among the biotechnology companies that make up Maryland's "DNA Alley" is the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, where scientists are trying to put names to the roughly 1,500 remains recovered from the two sites.
Working with crash victims is a familiar role for the lab, which usually identifies soldiers killed in crashes or in wars fought long ago, such as Korea and Vietnam. But the lab has also worked on civilian cases, handling victims from the recent crashes of Alaska Airlines and EgyptAir planes.
All military and civilian remains from the Pentagon were sent to a morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. There, samples are taken and sent in vials to the DNA lab. A similar process is used for the Somerset County site remains.
Scientists at the lab extract whatever DNA possible from the nucleus of cells found in the remains. The DNA is then sequenced, meaning researchers determine the order of the chemicals that make up the telltale rungs of the DNA ladder.
That genetic blueprint is then matched against DNA taken from samples provided by family members hair from the victim's brush, pap smears stored by medical centers, or even a victim's wisdom teeth. For military personnel, scientists match the DNA to blood samples blotted on index cards when they enlist.
Since each person has his own unique DNA structure with the exception of identical twins DNA is the best way to match remains to a person, said Col. Brion C. Smith, head of the lab.
"It's pretty definitive, especially if you're able to match the bloodstained card," he said.
The lab was able to identify all 217 passengers on the EgyptAirFlight 990 that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in October 1999, Col. Smith said.
With the DNA lab's help, the Department of Defense had identified 93 victims from Flight 77 and the Pentagon as of Oct. 3.
Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller had put names to 12 of the remains found at the Flight 93 crash site as of Oct. 2, all identified through dental records and fingerprints. The rest will likely be matched at the DNA lab, Mr. Miller said.
"We are confident and hopeful that we can identify the individuals from that plane," Mr. Miller said.
But a problem in some cases will be finding a sample of a victim's DNA to match with the remains from the crash sites. While reference material such as the bloodstained cards produce definitive matches, others won't be so clear.
In some cases, scientists must rely on DNA samples taken from a victim's parents or children, which will be similar to the victim's but still have genetic variations.
"Once you start dealing with things like relative DNA, matching becomes a great deal less significant and much more tenuous," Col. Smith said. "There is a reasonable chance that some people may not get something back."
For the 19 hijackers who also died in the four crashes, obtaining DNA to match with their remains will be extremely difficult. Col. Smith hasn't discussed the issue yet with the FBI. Mr. Miller said the FBI hasn't given Somerset County any DNA material from the suspected hijackers to match with remains found at the site.
"Dismembered hijackers are probably going to look like anybody else. Unless we get a reference to compare it to, we won't know for sure," Col. Smith said.
The FBI dispatched more than 100 forensics technicians, who have collected about 3,000 remains and other evidence from the World Trade Center site alone.
But agency spokesman Paul Bresson wasn't aware of whether the FBI planned to use DNA to identify the hijackers.
"It's fair to say we would be interested in obtaining any and all evidence that helps us identify both victims and hijackers," he said.
Meanwhile, Miss Clark's son has given a DNA sample for investigators to use. But Mr. Wesley expects it to take a long time until he gets any of Miss Clark's remains to put in the urn.
"All I'd like is something definitive; I'd take anything at all," he said.

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