One year after end of search for remains at the World Trade Cen

Saturday, May 31, 2003

NEW YORK -- John Casazza's widow would wear a locket around her neck with a speck of his remains -- if they were ever found. Tim Reilly's remains would be buried next to his father's. And Richard Gabrielle's would be cremated and placed in an urn, so his loved ones could take him along if they moved.

One year after the cleanup officially ended at the World Trade Center site where nearly 2,800 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, about 1,300 families are still waiting for the remains of their loved ones to be identified.

"I'll wait forever. Eventually, I'm hopeful that I will receive some remains of my husband," said Patricia Casazza, who spoke to her husband by phone before he died, as his Cantor Fitzgerald offices filled with smoke.

"When I finally fully realized my husband was never coming back, the only thing I ever wanted to do was hold him one more time."

To connect with him now, she sniffs his Grey Flannel cologne and enjoys moments on their 12-year-old son's Little League field where Casazza was coach.

The Casazzas and many other families have had to grieve without a grave to visit, without many of the rituals of mourning.

"You're still looking to have validation that he was really there in some concrete form," said Claire Walcovy, whose son, Tim Reilly, worked in the north tower.

"They go to work and then they're gone. What's left is a suit, a coat -- things that were left behind," said Gabrielle, whose husband, Richard, was on a south tower floor smashed by the second hijacked airliner.

The cleanup of the site ended on May 30, 2002. Recovery workers at the Staten Island landfill where the 1.62 million tons of rubble were taken continued to pick through the debris and remove remains, but that effort ended last July.

The identifications came quickly at first, and slowed as the parts got smaller, many with DNA degraded by heat, humidity and time. The city's chief forensic biologist, Robert Shaler, who leads the effort, said last summer he hoped to eventually reach 2,000 identifications, but he recently said that goal "looks like a real long shot now."

But Shaler and the city's medical examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, have vowed to never stop trying, and are weighing whether to use a process that examines pieces of DNA shorter than 100 base pairs, the rungs that form the ladder-like double helix of DNA.

Forensic scientists generally work with DNA samples of about 400 base pairs. DNA shrinks as it degrades, so the different technique -- adapted from a process normally used in disease research -- could give scientists another chance at identifying remains.

Shaler and Hirsch have said remains could still be identified years later as DNA technology improves.

Nearly 20,000 body parts were collected at the site; just 291 bodies were found whole. The greatest number of pieces found for one person is more than 200. The remains are being kept by the medical examiner's office in refrigerated trucks.

The FBI this year gave the medical examiner DNA samples for the 10 terrorists who hijacked the two planes that destroyed the twin towers. Two hijackers have been identified.

Some of the remains given back to victims' families are so small that one widow carries her husband's in a film container in her handbag. Another held a funeral for her husband after a tiny fragment of his bone was identified. It was placed in a full-size casket so that her children would feel some sense of normalcy.

Jennifer Nilsen visits an empty cemetery plot and a public memorial when she wants to lay flowers for her husband, Troy, a father of two boys. She has lost hope that he will ever be found.

"When they were still collecting parts, I was hopeful, but now, there's nothing," Nilsen said. "He's gone, his whole body is gone, everything's gone forever."

Casazza's pain also is compounded by the possibility that her husband's remains could forever be anonymous.

"I don't want him left there. I don't want him left in some lab petri dish, or freeze dried in some cold sterile environment," Casazza said. "He should be brought home if he can be brought home. He was a good man -- he deserves better than that."

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