What some experts have called "the most
comprehensive forensic investigation in U.S. history" ended Nov. 16
with the identification of 184 of the 189 who died in the terrorist
attack on the Pentagon.
A multidisciplinary team of more than 50 forensic specialists,
scientists, and support personnel from the Armed Forces Institute of
Pathology, with headquarters at Walter Reed, played a major role in
Operation Noble Eagle investigations, officials said.
Many of the casualties were badly burned and difficult to identify,
an official said. Of the 189 killed, 125 worked at the Pentagon and 64
were passengers on American Airlines Flight 77. Only one of those who
died made it to the hospital. The rest were killed on site, and for
some, only pieces of tissue could be found.
AFIP's team of forensic pathologists, odontologists, a forensic
anthropologist, DNA experts, investigators, and support personnel
worked for over two weeks in the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base,
Del., and for weeks at the DNA lab in Rockville, to identify the
victims of the attack.
"Our staff represented every branch of the service," said AFIP
Director Navy Capt. Glenn N. Wagner. "We also received tremendous
support from the doctors, nurses, and technicians stationed at Dover
who participated in the investigation."
The investigation mobilized AFIP assets in many ways. In the hours
following the crash Sept. 11, the acting armed forces medical examiner,
Air Force Col. AbuBakr Marzouk, worked with FBI and local Virginia law
enforcement officials to create a plan for recovering and identifying
At the same time, personnel from the Office of the Armed Forces
Medical Examiner positioned and staged equipment to begin operations at
Dover. Air Force Maj. Bruce Ensign served as AFIP's team leader at the
"We immediately called in regional medical examiners from as far
away as San Diego to participate," Ensign said. A total of 12 forensic
pathologists, assisted by two AFIP staff pathologists, headed the
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 and oral pathologists from
the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology.
AFDIL scientists ensured data systems and records were available to
make DNA identifications, while the oral pathology group created a
triage area to conduct positive dental identifications. Contacts were
also made with family services in each branch of the military to obtain
ante-mortem information and reference material. Mortuary operations
were fully underway by the evening of Sept. 13. AFIP used a
well-defined and tested system for conducting the identifications of
the Pentagon victims. When remains arrived at the morgue, a scanning
device searched for the presence of unexploded ordnance or metallic
foreign bodies. A computerized tracking system assigned numbers 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 performed dental charting and comparison with ante-mortem
dental records. Full-body radiographs followed to document skeletal
fractures and assist in the identification process, followed by autopsy
At autopsy, forensic pathologists determined the cause and manner of
death, aided by forensic anthropologist Dr. William C. Rodriguez in
determining the race, sex, and stature of victims. A board-certified
epidemiologist managed the tracking system for data collected during
the autopsy process, and tissue samples were collected for DNA
identification and further toxicology studies. Forensic photographers,
essential to any forensic investigation, documented injuries and
personal effects. Mortuary specialists then embalmed, dressed, and
casketed remains prior to release to next-of-kin.
For eight days a full complement of AFIP forensic specialists worked 12-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 more technology-intensive." Ensign
noted 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, Pa.," he said.
"Fortunately our logistical support was terrific in helping us get
material in." The Dover mortuary sent specimens back to the Armed
Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville.
Teams of forensic scientists, under the direction of Demris Lee,
technical leader of the Nuclear DNA Section, took over the difficult
chore of generating a DNA profile of the victims. Their work included
not only the Pentagon crash victims, but the victims of the Somerset
County crash as well. Every one of the organization's 102 DNA analysts,
sample processors, logistics staff, and administrative personnel were
involved -- from collecting, tracking, analyzing DNA samples, and
gathering and logging DNA reference material to preparing DNA reports.
For 18 days following the terrorist attacks, AFDIL employees worked on
12-hour shifts, seven days a week to meet the mission requirements.