CLAS Anthropologists Mobilized to NYC
Three days after the World Trade Center catastrophe Anthony Falsetti was at Ground Zero.
Falsetti, a UF professor of anthropology and the director of UF's C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, says it felt like a war zone. "My first impression was like many others," he says. "I simply couldn't believe it. When we arrived the fire was still burning fiercely and smoke was billowing out of lower Manhattan."
Falsetti was one of many volunteers who were mobilized as part of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), which assists areas experiencing mass fatality incidents. UF Anthropology Professor Michael Warren and forensic anthropology graduate student Heather Walsh-Haney are also part of DMORT and traveled to New York City immediately after the terrorist attacks. Although not assigned to Ground Zero, Warren visited there twice. He saw debris piles towering many stories taller than Gainesville's Seagle Building. "I was prepared to see extensive wreckage and debris. I was not, however, prepared for the scale of the site," he says. "Portions of the towers remained standing and were 20 to 30 stories tall. The danger to the rescuers was very real and I continue to worry about their safety."
Warren says his role was different from his activities in previous mass fatality incidents. "A decision was made to rely almost completely on DNA to determine the identity of the dead," he says. "As such, the contribution made by anthropologists was limited. My primary role was to examine all of the organic material brought to me by the investigators searching through the wreckage and determine whether or not the tissue was human or non-human. Non-human remains would simply prolong the identification process and unnecessarily add to the tremendous expense of DNA testing."
Falsetti found himself assigned to Ground Zero. "I was part of a seven-member team that included a forensic pathologist, three body trackers, two evidence technicians and myself as a forensic anthropologist," he says. "My mission was to examine all remains and make a tentative identification as to whether they represented a member of the NYPD, FDNY or Port Authority."
The entire DMORT team was housed at a hotel near the LaGuardia airport. Like everyone else, the UF anthropologists worked long days under difficult circumstances. "Working at Ground Zero was a challenge due to the ever-changing environment, smoke and fire predominantly. US Army personnel with loaded weapons, multiple checkpoints and concern over the buildings' structural soundness all worked into the psyche of everyone involved," Falsetti says.
Warren says that in situations like this he tries to keep a focused, analytical approach. "The tragedy lies in the final cumulative total of the scientific evidence. I try to work on one piece at a time and not look at what the entire, solved puzzle turns out to be," he says.
Despite the enormous challenges, the UF team managed to find something positive to take away from the experience. "I suspect that you needn't be a New Yorker or have been at Ground Zero to have seen some examples of the strength of the human spirit manifested as a result of this tragedy," Warren says.
Falsetti also was impressed by the spirit of New Yorkers. "We were cheered in the evenings as we left, and people outside the perimeter were handing us water, juice and cookies through the windows of our vans," he says. "I think everyone there just wanted to do something to say thank you."