State dental team on call to identify New York disaster victims

Liz Kohman

Sandra Myers is ready to answer a call most Americans would dread. She is prepared to be on a flight to New York City on 24 hours notice to help identify victims of Tuesday’s attacks.

The professor in the Dental School is a member of the Minnesota Dental Disaster Team – a group of dentists, dental hygienists and funeral directors trained and ready to help with disaster victim identification.

“I wouldn’t want to see a disaster,” Myers said, “but I want to help in any way I can.”

With more than 5,000 people missing in New York City after the attack on the World Trade Center towers, searchers face the task of looking through tons of building rubble for human remains.

Specialists such as Myers will then tackle the equally demanding task of matching the remains to the missing persons list.

The identification process can be done in many ways. Searchers can check bodies for identifying features such as tattoos, medical devices or birthmarks.

Professionals can also compare dental information or DNA from a victim’s remains with dental records and DNA from missing persons.

At least one team member, John Williams – a private-practice dentist – has already been sent to New York to help with victim identification.

Myers, who specializes in oral pathology, said the team trains and meets once or twice per year to run drills.

“There’s a need for people to be organized when a disaster occurs,” Myers said.

It is likely some people will remain missing because of the large numbers of victims, Myers said.

In an emergency, the team divides into three sections: One group works with the remains, another group with dental records, and the third group matches information from the two other groups.

In the case of the terrorist attacks, the team will probably use a database to make connections between remains and missing persons, Myers said.

“It going to be an awesome task,” she said. “It’s very time-intensive.”

Myers said volunteer coordination can be difficult in a disaster of this magnitude, and disaster relief efforts can be “clogged by too many people.”

Although it is hard to be on call in an emergency like this, Myers said she is a member of the team because she wants to help the victims’ families find answers as soon as possible.

In the case of DNA matching, the hair from victims’ hairbrushes or the cells from their toothbrushes could hold the key to their
identification.

Scientists can use cells from a toothbrush or a strand of hair to create DNA fingerprints, which can be matched with the DNA from the victim’s remains.

Brian Van Ness, a faculty member in the department of genetics, cell biology and development, studies human genetics and described DNA as “more unique than fingerprints themselves.”

Van Ness said performing DNA matching in an professional lab takes little time – the actual DNA test takes less than a day.

However, gathering genetic information from victims and missing persons will be more difficult, he said.

Victim identification could take a “couple of months, but it’s do-able,” Van Ness said.

Last Thursday 15 members of the 934th Airlift Wing of Minnesota’s Air Force Reserves flew to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to assist at the Defense Department’s mortuary.

The team will identify victim remains and ship them to families.

 

Liz Kohman welcomes comments at [email protected]