New Technique Helps Medical Examiners Identify 9/11 Victim’s Remains

Scott Michael Johnson was 26 years old when the World Trade Center tower where he worked crumbled after being hit by a hijacked plane nearly 17 years ago.

It has been almost two decades since the tragic Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks devastated the nation. However, new technology has led to the identification of a victim who had been unknown all this time.

According to NPR, Scott Michael Johnson was 26 years old when the World Trade Center tower where he worked crumbled after being hit by a hijacked plane nearly 17 years ago.

His remains have just been identified this week.

"In 2001, we made a commitment to the families of victims that we would do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to identify their loved ones," New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said in a statement. "This identification is the result of the tireless dedication of our staff to this ongoing mission."

Mark Desire, the assistant director of the office's department of forensic biology, said that there were 21,905 remains found from the World Trade Center, most of which were bone. In addition to the fact that bone is tough to extract DNA from, the samples also had deteriorated due to exposure to fire, jet fuel, water, mold, bacteria, and in some cases, sunlight.

"We work on World Trade Center identifications every day,” Desire reportedly told NPR.

To identify Johnson, the examiners tried a new method called “ultrasonic ball bearings,” which is when the bone is crushed with a piece of metal. When the bone was smashed into a fine powder, the examiners treated it with chemicals and extracted DNA, which allowed them to generate a forensic profile.

From there, the team was able to compare the profile they created with a toothbrush that Johnson’s family had given them back in 2001.

"This commitment to the families is as great today as it was in 2001," Desire asserted.

While Johnson is the 1,642nd victim to be identified, approximately 40 percent more still have not been matched.

Johnson’s mother, Ann, said she cried upon learning her son had finally been identified.

“You get pulled right back into it, and it also means there's a finality," she said. “Somehow I always thought he would just walk up and say, 'Here I am. I had amnesia.'"

Offering even more closure to the family, Desire said the office would release any remaining bone fragment to them.

"The ability to give something physical back to the family, to return a loved one, is important," he said. "Whatever we have, we will release that as the family wishes."

Although this work may seem moot to some people after all of these years, the peace of mind that is given to the grieving families with every new identified person is important and valuable. Without tangible evidence that their loved ones are actually deceased, many people are left with the false hope that they could still be alive.

It’s also likely a relief to know that the remains of a loved one have been recovered and did not just get buried or washed away as if they were nothing more than debris.  

It's no secret that technology can be, at times, both a gift and a curse. But it's safe to say that the innovation that led to Johnson's identification is, indeed, a gift that we hope keeps on giving. 

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