by Christopher C.
multi-disciplinary team of more than 50 forensic specialists, scientists
and support personnel from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP)
played a major role in one of the most comprehensive forensic
investigations in United States history following the September 11, 2001
terrorist attack at the Pentagon in Virginia, just outside Washington,
Code-named "Operation Noble Eagle," AFIP’s team of forensic
pathologists, odontologists, a forensic anthropologist, DNA experts,
investigators and support personnel worked for over two weeks at the
Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary at Dover, Delaware to identify the
188 victims of the attack. "Our staff represented every branch of the
service," said AFIP Director Glenn N. Wagner, CAPT, MC, USN, who served
as senior officer during the operation.
The investigation mobilized AFIP assets in many ways. During the hours
immediately following the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the
Pentagon, the acting Armed Forces Medical Examiner, Abubkr Marzouk, Col,
USAF, MC, began working with FBI and local Virginia law enforcement
officials to create an effective plan for first recovering and then
identifying the victims. At the same time, personnel from the Office of
the Armed Forces Medical Examiner (OAFME) positioned and staged
equipment to begin operations at Dover. Bruce Ensign, LCDR, MC, USN,
served as AFIP’s team leader at the site. "We immediately called in
regional medical examiners from as far away as San Diego to
participate," he said. A total of 12 forensic pathologists, assisted by
two AFIP staff pathologists, headed the OAFME investigation team.
Also arriving at Dover during those early critical hours were two other
key AFIP groups: forensic scientists from OAFME’s Armed Forces DNA
Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and oral pathologists from the
Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology. AFDIL scientists ensured
that data systems and records were available to make DNA
identifications, while the oral pathology group created a triage area to
conduct dental identifications. Contacts were also made with family
services personnel in each branch of the military to obtain antemortem
information and reference material. Mortuary operations were fully
underway by the evening of September 13, just two days after the attack.
AFIP utilized a well-defined and tested system for conducting the
identifications of the Pentagon attack victims. When remains arrived at
the morgue, a scanning device searched for the presence of unexploded
ordinance or metallic foreign bodies. A computerized tracking system
then assigned a number to each victim for efficient tracking. FBI
experts collected trace evidence to search for chemicals from explosive
devices and conducted fingerprint identifications. Forensic dentistry
experts from the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology then
performed dental charting and comparison with antemortem dental records.
Full-body radiographs documented skeletal fractures and assisted in the
identification process, followed by autopsy inspection.
At autopsy, forensic pathologists determined the cause and manner of
death, aided by forensic anthropologist Dr. William C. Rodriguez to
determine the race, sex and stature of victims for presumptive
identification when necessary. A board-certified epidemiologist managed
the tracking system for data collected during the autopsy process.
Tissue samples were collected for DNA identification and further
toxicologic studies. Forensic photographers -- essential to any forensic
investigation -- documented injuries and personal effects. Finally,
mortuary specialists embalmed, dressed and casketed remains prior to
release to next-of-kin.
For eight days a full complement of AFIP forensic specialists worked
twelve-hour shifts to complete the operation. "This is the largest mass
fatality we’ve dealt with in recent years," Ensign said. "We have
modalities today that we didn’t have before. Our investigation was much
Ensign noted that the entire team worked well together. "Because of the
combined effort of all three services and the FBI we were very pleased
with the speed of the identification process. Essential records and
references were submitted to us in a timely way." Logistical help from
AFIP also played an important role. "We had tremendous logistical issues
obtaining equipment, especially with additional demands in New York City
and Somerset County, Pennsylvania," he said. "Fortunately our logistical
support was terrific in helping us get material in."
Others also played essential roles. Histotechnicians from the Department
of Scientific Laboratories served as autopsy technicians assisting
pathologists with the remains, while special agents assigned by the
various services helped in the investigation. "It was a terrific team
effort," Ensign said.
According to Rodriquez, "This was the largest mass fatality we've seen
in years, and it required hundreds of decisions to be made quickly and
accurately. But our biggest concern was always for the families. We
worked hard to get the job done and return the victims to their loved
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