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9/11 Victims Still Being Identified

September 8, 2003 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Grass grows over the plots where families buried empty coffins after memorials long ago. No trace of a body has been found for nearly 1,300 victims of the World Trade Center attack.

But even now, forensic scientists are matching victims’ DNA from specks of tissue and slivers of bone. And once or twice a week, the city medical examiner delivers news of an identification to another family _ news that comforts and hurts at the same time.

For some families of the recently identified, it’s the granting of a wish almost abandoned _ to put their loved ones to rest.

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``Now, there’s something. He didn’t just disappear,″ said Joan Stewart, whose son, Richard Stewart Jr., was identified in July. ``It’s the missing link to the puzzle.″

Stewart and her husband were walking out the door to their backyard when the state trooper arrived. She had played the scene many times in her head, but she had no idea how she would feel.

They sat on a bench in a courtyard outside the Stewarts’ Wilmington, Del., condominium. DNA from Richard’s forearm, the trooper told her, had been identified.

``It’s bringing it all back. It’s all new again,″ she said, in tears, a week later.

After his remains are cremated, the family plans to bury some in Wilmington and take some to Maui, where Richard vacationed once, later gushing to his parents that it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen.

The Stewarts will wait to see if the medical examiner matches more remains for their son, a hulking 35-year-old bond broker and former college hockey star. The most matched to one person, a man who worked in the south tower, is more than 200 pieces.

Shortly after the attacks, the victims’ families were given a form to sign, asking whether they wanted to be notified each time remains were found, and what they wanted done with the parts. Nearly 20,000 pieces were collected from the trade center site in a massive nine-month excavation.

In July, more than a year after workers stopped searching for remains, the medical examiner identified Peter Frank, who worked in the north tower as a vice president and financial analyst for Fred Alger & Co.

Frank’s sister called his fiancee, Karen Carlucci, with the news. Like others who lost loved ones, she had mixed emotions. In their grief, many have had to find a peaceful resolution to the horror.

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``There was something mysterious about him not being identified ... he was just instantly eliminated physically, and was one of those people you wouldn’t find,″ said Carlucci, who had planned to marry Frank on Oct. 19, 2001. ``But that also leaves things in limbo and hanging, and there’s enough hanging as it is.″

About 54 percent of the nearly 2,800 trade center victims have been identified. Two hijackers have been identified.

Some victims’ remains were burned or otherwise damaged so badly that their DNA may never yield results. Others were essentially vaporized in the collapse, and likely won’t be found.

The city’s top forensic biologist, Robert Shaler, once hoped to reach 2,000 identifications. But in a recent interview Shaler said he no longer thinks that’s a realistic expectation, and hopes instead for 1,700 to 1,800 identifications _ about 60 to 65 percent.

``We’re pushing the envelope with science, with reliable science,″ Shaler said. ``As long as there’s something we can do, we’ll do it. But right now, the technology we’re using is going to run out of gas.″

The identifications went quickly at first: more than 400 in the first six weeks after the attack, with only a handful by DNA. By September 2002, the remains of 1,400 people had been matched. Slightly more than 100 have been identified in the year since then.

The process slowed as technicians struggled with the severely damaged DNA, finding new processes and applications and even creating new software for the effort, which is considered to be the largest DNA identification project in history.

Shaler and Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch hope that an adapted version of a DNA process normally used for disease research will soon yield a burst of new identifications. It enables them to examine unusually short pieces of DNA, which shrinks as it degrades.

The DNA in about 61 percent of the remains recovered at the trade center was so damaged that it did not yield workable results in initial tests. Just 291 bodies were found whole.

Some victims’ relatives say they have focused less on remains over time.

Frederick Varacchi, Cantor Fitzgerald’s chief operating officer and father of three, was identified just weeks ago. It was a tough day for his family, but that’s life now, said Carolyn Marschean, one of Varacchi’s six older sisters.

``The hardest thing is that we no longer have our brother and the children don’t have a father _ two years later we’re still dealing with that,″ Marschean said. ``Because he was identified, it doesn’t change anything. It’s still the same tragedy.″

Firefighter Brian Hickey’s remains were identified on June 11, what would have been his 49th birthday. It was exactly a year after his family buried a coffin that held his crushed, dirt-caked helmet _ then, the only sign of him found in the ruins.

This summer, his wife, Donna Hickey, replaced the helmet with a box holding a 1-by-1-inch bone fragment.

``Some of us even felt it was more emotional than the first time around _ it felt right, it felt good, we have him home now,″ Hickey said. ``It really eases the burden just a little bit.″

Hickey said she fell to the floor when the chief of the Fire Department, two priests and three men from her husband’s fire company came to her home to tell her his remains had been found.

``It opens up some wounds _ it’s not all positive _ but the point is that as a widow, you got to a point where you had to accept this,″ she said. ``He came home. He’s where he should be.″