healthHealth and Medicine

9/11 Victim Finally Identified After 17 Years Using Cutting-Edge Genetics Science


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

He's the 1,642nd victim to be identified, with 1,111 remaining. Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Genetic testing was once the stuff of near-science-fiction, encroaching at the gates of possibility. Now we hear stories of how personal kits are shattering personal histories on a semi-regular basis.

As reported by The New York Times, genetic testing advances are also revolutionizing the way we identify victims of horrific tragedies. After several attempts over the past 17 years to identify a single, highly damaged bone recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, scientists have announced that they’ve finally succeeded.


The bone – one of 21,905 human remains recovered from the 9/11 attacks in New York City – belonged to Scott Michael Johnson, a 26-year-old financial worker. He worked on the 89th floor of the South Tower.

He’s person number 1,642 to be identified from the New York sites of the attacks, with a staggering 1,111 people left to identify. Often, the remains are so badly damaged by the fires, jet fuel, sunlight, and mold that it’s not been possible to extract enough DNA to make a match, but as the report explains, new techniques are proving to be quite effective at getting through.

Ultrasonic ball bearings are able to better pulverize the bone, in order to get more DNA samples. Using careful chemical reactions, the team are also able to replicate the DNA in order to give them more evidence to sift through – although that’s far from easy. In this case, the DNA was matched to that of a toothbrush that Johnson once used.

Sometimes, long gaps appear between the identifications of victims. The New York Times reported in 2017 that similar genetic testing improvements led to the reveal of the 1,641st person to die in the attacks, after a two-year gap.


As the years go on, the tech is only going to get more advanced. Recent studies have shown that it’s possible to obtain DNA from truly ancient human remains, those that are 15,000 years old. These bones were left in a warm, arid climate, which although not quite as dramatically as fire still breaks DNA down.

There’s plenty of work left to do though. A review published back in 2012, noting that sometimes bones are the only source of DNA, laments that “a universal method that allows for extraction of DNA from materials at different stages of degradation does not exist.”

Today, the same still applies, even if there’s a wider range of increasingly precise ways to succeed. Either way, it’s easy to see why so many have a huge amount of respect for the researchers at the NYC Medical Examiner’s office: they’re working on some of the most difficult samples in history in an attempt to turn a page for thousands of families.

[H/T: The New York Times]


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