Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 Remembrance & Shaler's Work

Five years ago, measured from the time that I write this (9:20 am, September 11, 2006), news had broken about the terrorist suicide jetliner attacks in New York City. The events of that morning changed the life of Robert Shaler, the Director of Forensic Biology in the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

I met Bob in June of 2005. He had agreed to serve as an expert witness in an Orphans' Court litigation case where we sought to present conclusive DNA evidence regarding paternal lineage of a decedent. While I prepared him for the questioning before the hearing, I learned about his experiences that day, and the events that unfolded for long afterwards. He remains one of the most amazing, dedicated individuals that I have ever met.

Bob was in charge of identifying the remains of the victims at the World Trade Center site.

He wrote a book about his experiences, which was published in October, 2005, as described and reviewed in a U.S. News & World Report
article found online here.

The quest to identify those who were killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was a massive undertaking. Robert Shaler, then director of forensic biology at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, faced the challenge of his career in the wake of the tragedy—and yet, initially, he says, he "naively" underestimated the magnitude of the job he and his colleagues faced.

"I never stopped to consider how long the project would take, the effect it would have on my life and family and especially the emotional toll it would extract." The process took over three years, and Shaler suffered a heart attack. He retired earlier this year to direct the Forensic Science Program at Pennsylvania State University. Shaler chronicles the journey—as well as the science that made it possible — in Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing.

I met Bob just as he was concluding his duties in NYC, and before he began his new and positive challenge -- starting and leading a new forensic department at Penn State. His move was described in a May 23, 2005, press release found online here, as follows:

University Park, Pa. -- This July, Robert Shaler, director of forensic biology in New York City's Office of Chief Medical Examiner, will leave the City to head Penn State's new forensics major program. He supervised the massive DNA testing effort to identify thousands of victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

"This will be the most rigorous and comprehensive forensics program in the country for undergraduates," says Shaler, a Penn State alumnus. "Students will be exposed to the forensic sciences immediately beginning in the first year and then throughout the entire program.

"My expectation is that Penn State will be training the future benchmark scientists and leaders in the field," he adds. Shaler also will be professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

By this time last year -- at the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 events -- Bob's forthcoming book was noticed nationally. His book was published on October 4, 2005. Bob's book is described online at one here, summarized as follows:

Dr. Robert Shaler: Identifying Katrina's Victims

Fresh Air from WHYY, September 8, 2005 · Robert Shaler, former director forensic biology at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, led efforts to identify remains at the World Trade Center attacks. He discusses the challenges that lie ahead for those responsible for identifying the bodies of Hurricane Katrina's victims. Shaler is author of the forthcoming book, Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing.

And so, out of the twisted steel & pulverized concrete of the buildings, the agony of the victims, the helpers, & the survivors, and the helplessness of the salvage workers, investigators, & examiners, arose something positive -- a new program in education that will help others. The program is described online here as follows:

The new undergraduate major will be administered by Penn State's Eberly College of Science and will include many upper-level courses taught by prominent researchers there and in other academic colleges on topics such as mitochrondrial DNA, forensic anthropology, and forensic entomology. A field laboratory is being set up so that students can learn to recognize, collect, and preserve evidence at a crime scene.

Another major component will be a new discussion-oriented course designed to reinforce understanding of the purpose, importance, and limitations of scientific methods and techniques commonly used in forensic science; to introduce how specific fields such as meteorology, geology, engineering, and psychology can contribute to forensic science; to more fully appreciate how evidence is introduced and used in criminal trials; and to provide an opportunity to improve student skills in oral expression.

In addition to educating undergraduate students, Shaler envisions a broad outreach program, including workshops in the latest forensic technologies applicable to law-enforcement professionals, emergency- management officials, attorneys, and others throughout the U.S. and the world. Mass-fatality incident management will be a major topic in future workshops.

For more than three decades, Penn State has provided training and assessment services to federal, state, county, and municipal law-enforcement agencies through the University's Justice and Safety Institute.

More information on Penn State's new forensics major is at:

Out of destruction, rebuilding; out of loss, healing; and out of ignorance, knowledge. This is the lesson of 9/11, Katrina, and any other disasters that might befall us.