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Syracuse University Students Learn How Forensic Science Is Still Identifying 9/11 World Trade Center Victims 20 Years After The Attack

911 forensics marc 1.jpg
Scott Willis
WAER news
Research Assistant Prof. Mike Marciano gives his lesson in 9/11 in his forensics analysis of biological evidence lab.

Many college courses have included content on the September 11th terrorist attacks since they happened.  But what lessons remain in the 20 years since then?  WAER News stopped by a classroom at Syracuse University to find out what students are learning, plus what they remember about that day and the aftermath.

There are any number of ways and angles to teach about 9/11. But on this day, it’s Research Assistant Professor Mike Marciano’s class on the forensic analysis of biological evidence.

"Much like you guys may know the OJ Simpson case changed the way forensic science is practiced, 9/11 had a huge impact on the way that forensic DNA was used in a mass disaster scenario."

He told the class of about 15 students that the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner largely led the identification process of the more than 2,700 victims. Within one year, the forensic biology and DNA department identified about 1,200 people; as of this month, Marciano says that number is at 1,650. Second year graduate student Jon Hogg has connections to some of them, even though he was only three when the airliners struck the twin towers.

"I know people who have had family members who died or have been affected by it. I understand a little bit about how they feel, the absolute tragedy and the loss that happened there."

Fellow grad student Taylor Zekri was in 6th grade 20 years ago.

"It was the first class of the day, I remember it was my German class. One of the other teachers came in and turned on the TV and we watched was going on. I was little, so I didn't know what the World Trade Center was, but everyone was talking about it all day. My parents were supposed to go to China that day. When I got home, they were still home, and I was like, 'oh, why didn't you leave?' They had to explain how big of a deal it was."

Both Zekri and Hogg say their class has given them a different perspective on the attack and what’s involved in identifying victims of a mass casualty event.

"You're having to analyze everything, figuring out whose body belongs to who. Just how long that takes, and knowing the process. Most people don't understand it. It would be a huge undertaking to find the evidence that you think is important," Zekri said.

"Forensic science opens up a lot of doors to being able to find those answers, because a lot of families don't have answers," Hogg said. "What we're talking about in class could be used in the real world to find those truths to help those families mourn."

"I think there would be a lot of pressure to make sure you're getting things right," Zekri said. "And, if you're going fast enough for families so they can have the closure and aren't waiting for years and years."

"It can be a little overwhelming, but also thinking about the impact that you have takes priority. Understanding what we can do to change people's lives is something to keep in the forefront," Hogg said.

Professor Mike Marciano says one of those lives was Nykiah Morgan. Her mother was on the 94th floor of the north tower.

"Dorothy Morgan, insurance broker, missing since September 11, 2001. August 2021, NYPD detectives visited her daughter to tell her that the remains of her mother were identified. Twenty years later, they're still working hard at it, implementing new technologies to help identify individuals."

Marciano says forensic experts will continue to play a role in identifying the more than one thousand remaining victims from the world trade center site. Perhaps some of those scientists will come from his own classroom.