The city began sifting through 9/11 material again April 1 in search of human remains—but a group representing victims’ families wants the effort halted until the mishandling of DNA at the Medical Examiner’s Office can be investigated.
The 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims last week also called for an independent auditor to monitor all 9/11 work at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and for an investigator to review all previous World Trade Center samples and order them retested if needed.
An Office in Disarray
In recent years, mistakes have surfaced in the office’s handling of DNA in criminal cases, and staff has been arrested for crimes as disparate as embezzling funds, giving prescription drugs to friends and posing for pictures with severed body parts. Longtime Chief ME Dr. Charles S. Hirsch recently retired.
“We fear that a long-standing culture of mistakes, mishaps and lack of oversight in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has jeopardized not only the day-to-day operations of criminal DNA cases but the 9/11 WTC human-remains cases as well,” the group said in a press release. “...Accountability, responsibility, transparency, professionalism and integrity in the OCME is the least that all crime victims, members of the public, and families of the victims deserve for themselves and for their loved ones.”
In January, one official was fired and another suspended after an internal investigation found that more than 50 DNA samples from crime scenes hadn’t been uploaded to state databases as required. The errors were discovered after a separate two-year investigation revealed that evidence from at least 26 rape kits had been overlooked, and materials from other kits had been switched or lost.
In 2007, the head of the office’s computer network pleaded guilty in Federal court to embezzling Federal Emergency Management Agency and other funds awarded for locating 9/11 victim remains. Later that year, a dentist who identified World Trade Center casualties admitted to writing illegal prescriptions for his girlfriend. And in 2011, a jury awarded $1 million to a Staten Island family after the Medical Examiner’s Office improperly kept their teenage son’s organs without informing them.
Urged State Takeover
The 9/11 group called for a state takeover of the office until an outside investigation into its practices could be completed.
“At this time, we are not confident in the OCME’s ability to extract and identify DNA samples that may be found during the sifting process,” they wrote.
The ME’s Office declined to respond.
The remains of about 1,100 World Trade Center victims have not been identified more than 11 years after the attacks.
The 9/11 Parents & Families last week suggested that that tally should be higher. The group is also fighting the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, which it says did not consult the families adequately when planning to house their loved ones’ remains several stories underground within the paid section of the museum.