September 11 Anniversary: The Remains Of 9/11 That Were Never Found

Whenever she wants to feel close to her son Paul, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, Sophie Ortiz pulls out her journal and writes to him, usually the latest news about his daughter and other family.

Paul's body was never identified, so there is no grave to visit. The journal has become a means for a mother to connect with her son.

The young computer technician was one of the 1,121 people killed on 9/11 whose remains have never been identified.

According to New York City's Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), of the 2,753 people who died in the attacks, only 1,632, or 59 percent, have been identified.

"It's like [my son] just disappeared. It would be better to know [what happened to him]," said Ortiz, who explained that the failure to recover her son's body made it more difficult to accept his death.

The day of the attacks, Paul--or Paulie, as he was affectionately called by his family--was working an extra shift and had gone to the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center to install equipment for a conference. Moments after the first plane hit the tower, Ortiz, who was 21 at the time, called his father to say he was fine.

Paul Ortiz, Sr. remembers the conversation. "He asked, 'Dad, did you hear what happened?'A plane hit the World Trade Center. And I said, 'how do you know?' "Because I'm here,' he said."

Ortiz Sr. said his son told him not to worry, that firefighters were on their way. That was the last time they spoke.

"I was sure he had managed to get out. We waited, waited and waited, and we never saw him again. I now understand that he never had a chance," he said.

The Ortiz family scoured the city's hospitals hoping to find him, but there was no trace of the cheerful Puerto Rican young man who loved salsa and had twice thrown himself into a lake to save someone's life.

The difficulty of identifying human remains

As families like the Ortiz's searched for their loved ones, the OCME was working tirelessly to identify victims' remains.

In a book that describes these efforts (Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing), Robert C. Shaler, who was head of the Department of Forensic Biology of the OCME from 1990 to 2005, described that in just two days --from Sept. 12 to 14-- his office went from receiving 91 samples, mostly human tissue and blood, to 639 sets of human remains.

"Though the media published that 'many bodies' had been brought to our office, that statement was actually an error of semantics. What the media were calling 'bodies' actually comprised only parts of bodies," Shaler explained to El Diario/La Prensa.

According to the forensic expert, the fact that human remains were recovered during a long period of time complicated the identification process. Shaler cited for comparison the crash in November 2001 of American Airlines Flight 587, when his office received in a relatively short time about 2,000 sets of remains. This allowed OCME to identify 265 victims within a month.

"But since we were still receiving remains from Sept. 11 all the way until July of the following year, organizing and identifying them became harder," he said.

Shaler added that the technology needed to perform all this kind work had not yet been invented. And what had compounded the situation were the high temperatures caused by fire after the airplanes were crashed into the World Trade Center. Many victims' remains were charred, leaving no DNA to identify them.

Yet another problem was that sometimes the remains of one person were recovered when in fact they belonged to several people.

"On one occasion, we found a fireman's uniform. Of course, it had a name [of the firefighter] printed on it, but when we started to analyze the bones that were found inside, we realized that they actually belonged to more than one person," Shaler said. "It was likely that those who collected the uniform, perhaps on finding bones nearby, assumed they were also from the person who'd been wearing the uniform originally, and therefore they were placed inside."

Without anything to bury

Luis H. Zayas, director of the Center for Latino Family Research at the University of Washington in St. Louis, said it is more difficult to say goodbye to a loved one when you don't know how he or she died, or how they spent their last moments.

"My mother died a few days ago, and we were all present during her illness. It was hard, yes, but it was clear. The loss was something understandable," he said.

Among Latinos, Zayas explained, burials are of great importance within the concept of death and how it is processed.

Ortiz said that her faith and belief that she would see her son in the next life, have helped her cope with the pain of losing him.

"At first, all I wanted was to find him, to see him one last time. But it did not happen that way, and I must accept that and be satisfied with how things turned out. I had to seek another way to find peace," she said.

As much as she wanted so much to see her son's body, Ortiz said she doesn't need to visit a grave to be near him. To feel Paulie in her heart, she only has to remember his laugh, his enthusiasm and the great father he would have been if he were still alive.

This article is part of a 9/11 Anniversary series from El Diario, to read more, please click here.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the institution with which Luis H. Zayas is affiliated and misspelled his last name. Mr. Zayas is director of the Center for Latino Family Research at the University of Washington in St. Louis.