WASHINGTON - Few people on Earth have witnessed more mass disasters and human violence over a longer time span than Toledo's Frank and Julie Saul.
The internationally known husband-and-wife team of forensic anthropologists have studied skeletons of sacrificial victims in the ancient Maya Empire. They've assisted the FBI and the Lucas County coroner's office in identifying modern crime victims.
At major transportation disasters, the Sauls have helped put names to the remains of victims: the 217 people lost in 1999 when EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed off Nantucket; Korean Air Flight 801, which crashed in 1997 on Guam with 228 deaths; the 1997 ComAir crash in Monroe County, Michigan, which left 29 people dead.
Now the experts, who thought they had seen everything, have entered uncharted territory as members of the federal emergency response team identifying victims of the World Trade Center disaster in New York City.
“No previous experience could have prepared us for this scene,” Frank Saul said in a telephone interview last week. “The magnitude, the scope, is absolutely unimaginable. This is a crime scene, but perhaps the biggest in history. It covers acres of land, with debris piled to great depth, and enough victims to populate a town. The job is incredibly difficult. You just keep your head down and keep working.”
Based on the site's size and the number of victims, Dr. Saul predicted that it could take a year or more just to separate human remains from the estimated 1.2 million tons of debris. The actual identification process could take longer, despite extensive use of DNA analysis.
The victim identification process for the EgyptAir disaster, for instance, began late in 1999. But Dr. Saul said it was completed just a few months ago. The crash site and the victim list were only a fraction the size of the World Trade Center disaster.
Dr. Saul, a former dean at the Medical College of Ohio, directs one of 10 regional components of the National Disaster Medical System. It was organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to deal with natural disasters, transportation accidents, and terrorist acts.
Called Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, they are deployed from home bases like Toledo after major disasters. The pathologists, anthropologists, dentists, funeral directors, and other personnel help local medical examiners whose resources otherwise would be overwhelmed.
As the response team Region 5 director, Dr. Saul oversees disaster recovery activities in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In major disasters, however, the regional teams can be deployed anywhere.
The Sauls were in Lincoln, Neb., on Sept. 11 working on another human remains identification project. They were quickly deployed to assist the New York City medical examiner.
Several other Toledo-area response team personnel joined them but since have returned home.
They include Robert L. Shank, Jr., deputy commander of the Region 5 response team; his father, Robert L. Shank, Sr., one of the founders of the response team; William J. Shank, a retired Toledo police officer, and Robert L. Van Horn.
Still working in New York last week were Brent M. Harley and Judith Miller.
The Toledo personnel had a variety of assignments. William Shank, for instance, worked at “ground zero” as an evidence officer. Robert Shank collected identification information from relatives of the victims. Robert L. Shank, Jr., a computer specialist, and Ms. Miller, a registered nurse, worked on DNA identification of remains.
Julie Saul worked at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where dump trucks hauled much of the 154,000 tons of debris cleared as of late last week. Her task: Sort through the rubble one more time, with the expert eye that can distinguish human tissue from other material, and collect and label the remains.
Last week she moved to the mounds of rubble at ground zero, where workers using heavy equipment began uncovering clusters of bodies.
On Monday alone the bodies of at least 12 and perhaps as many as 25 firefighters were found in the debris.
On Tuesday a worker at the scene described by telephone how four firefighters were found in a void in a stairwell. Their firefighting gear still was intact.
A rescue worker, David D. Dzierba, a New York state trooper based in Lockport, said it's hard to comprehend the scene by watching television reports.
“On Monday they brought in mostly body parts. Next day there were intact bodies, clothing and all. Then just fragments. You see a lot in a 15-year police career. But nothing like this - that makes veterans put their hand over their mouth and sob,” Trooper Dzierba said.
“I've developed a real appreciation for people like the medical examiner's staff and the [mortuary response team] people. I don't know how they can keep at it day after day.”
Identification of intact bodies remained straightforward, often possible from driver's licenses, official IDs, or photographs. By late in the week, the disaster toll stood at 344 confirmed dead, with 289 victims positively identified; 5,219 more were listed as missing.
Dr. Saul supervised a night shift contingent of 50 to 100 people working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the medical examiner's office. They ranged from pathologists and specially trained dentists to funeral directors and embalmers.
Funeral directors, he pointed out, are among the unheralded workers at the scene who have a key role in the victim-identification process.
“They're accustomed to interacting with bereaved families and have the people skills important in gathering information needed to identify victims,” Dr. Saul explained.
Information from the families forms the foundation of the victim identification process, Dr. Saul said. It is especially important when bodies are not intact.
Families provide photographs; descriptions of scars, tattoos, and other identifying marks; descriptions of clothing and jewelry worn on Sept. 11; names of personal physicians and dentists, and other information.
Dr. Saul described dental X-rays as one of the “gold standards” for making a positive identification, along with fingerprints and medical X-rays showing old fractures or other distinctive signs.
Relatives have supplied used toothbrushes, unlaundered garments, and other personal effects that can be used to extract DNA samples.
Some relatives have provided tissue samples for extraction of DNA. The samples can be matched to the DNA in remains from the disaster site.
DNA analysis will be used on a much more extensive basis than in previous disasters, Dr. Saul said. It is important, other specialists explained, because of the fragmentation that occurred in the great destruction.
Dr. Charles Hirsch, the New York medical examiner, held an emergency conference of genetic-testing experts on Wednesday to plan the testing program, which could take months.
Rescuers and the mortuary response team personnel have found about 5,000 tissue or bone samples in the debris, according to the medical examiner's office. That, officials acknowledged, is a small fraction of samples expected.
One estimate from the office indicated that more than one million separate DNA tests will be needed. The tests will be done by a number of private firms.
In contrast, about 6,000 DNA samples were tested on remains from the EgyptAir crash.
Testing for the composition of DNA in samples is just the start.
Experts then decide how closely the chemically encoded information in two samples must match to constitute positive identification.
Dr. Saul was asked how decades of close encounters with death has changed him as a person. He taught gross anatomy, for instance, to hundreds of medical school students - a course that involves dissecting bodies -studied disease and death in countless prehistoric skeletons, and worked crime and disaster scenes where bodies were dismembered, burnt, and mutilated in other indescribable ways.
“Each experience makes me appreciate the wonder of life a little more,” Dr. Saul said. “It draws me closer to my loved ones and friends. I've always had an awe for what we are as human beings and where we're going.”
He paused, the clamor of activity echoing in the background.
“Death is a wonder too,” he added. “Death helps people appreciate this gift called life - every day, every hour.”