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A magazine from California State University, Chico -- On-line Edition  
Summer 2007
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Kyle wheeler holding his Emmy Award and photo of Kyle using a video camera

Identifying the Remains of 9/11

Since graduating from California State University, Chico, Ben Figura’s career has taken him to a number of the world’s most beautiful places, though at the worst of times.

As a forensic anthropologist specializing in identifying human remains, Figura (MA, Anthropology, ’04) worked in the foul waters of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that killed some 230,000 people. Today, he leads a small team of experts from New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner working to put names to the thousands of human remains still being found at Ground Zero. Most of the remains at this stage are bone fragments, some very small.

Working at the site of a historic tragedy and in such intimate contact with its victims, as well as its survivors—Figura often calls family members when his team identifies remains—can be emotionally wrenching.

“Obviously, you’re aware that the bone fragment you’re working with is from a victim of the World Trade Center,” he says.

But he tries to keep his mind off the personal tragedies and the horror of the event. Instead, he focuses on the science—and on the ultimate goal. “You can’t get emotionally involved; otherwise, you couldn’t do this for very long,” he says.

It helps that Figura loves his work, both because of the professional challenges and rewards it affords, and because he is confident they will identify more remains of the 2,750 victims who perished when the Twin Towers fell. To date, the remains of 1,624 victims have been identified.

“We feel like there’s a good chance we’ll have additional identifications,” he says. That wasn’t the case several years ago. “We had exhausted every [analytic] avenue we had,” he says.

Then, advances in DNA analyses began leading to IDs from much smaller bone fragments than were previously possible. And with about 10,000 remains yet to be identified, there’s a lot of room for additional success.

When they find a new fragment, Figura and his colleagues conduct an anthropology assessment to determine if the bone came from a person. If it did, they try to determine the gender, age, and other general characteristics. That’s where his CSU anthropology education comes in. After they have pulled all the information they can from the fragment, they send it to a lab for DNA mapping. Those results are then compared with a database of DNA samples the city has compiled for most victims.

When a fragment is identified as coming from a victim for whom other remains have previously been identified, Figura calls the family, unless they have asked not to be notified, and a few have. Others, he said, want to know everything.

“You have to be compassionate, but at the same time you don’t want to sugarcoat anything,” he says.

When a bone fragment is linked to a victim to whom no previous remains have been tied, other officials make personal contacts with surviving family members, who can decide what happens to the remains.

Figura was well prepared for his job by CSU, Chico; his master’s thesis is on methods of preserving human remains found at the World Trade Center. He’d already been doing contract work for the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner while studying for his MA. The 32-year-old Flint, Michigan, native is currently working on a PhD in anthropology at New York’s Binghamton University. His dissertation is on ways to incorporate anthropology with DNA analysis to improve victim identification.

Through his work, Figura has witnessed the aftermath of terrible events. But he knows he’s doing something essential, something that provides comfort to surviving family members. And he loves the mystery of it, the discovery, and the challenge of putting a human name to what otherwise would be an artifact.

“I think I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” he says.

About the author

Gordon Gregory lives with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Georgia, in Paradise. He is a former reporter for newspapers in Montana and Oregon, and is now a freelance writer.