Charles G. Wolf’s wife Katherine went to work on the 97th floor of 1 World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and she never returned. Wolf knew that it was highly improbable that his wife’s remains would surface from the smoldering wreckage at ground zero: “I knew her body had been vaporized and immolated,” he explained. But he still held onto a faint glimmer that, through the recovery effort and extensive DNA testing, maybe her engagement ring would come back to him. But as time passes, even that prospect has faded.
“I’m not even hoping, because it’s 16 years on,” Wolf, 63, said last week, as the anniversary of his wife’s death approached. “I’m not tying myself down emotionally hoping and waiting.”
Wolf is just one of thousands of Americans who have never received remains of their loved one 16 years after the 9/11 attacks. As of August 2017, about 40% of the 2,753 people who died at the World Trade Center have never been identified through DNA testing on the remains that were collected from the site. The testing of the remains is ongoing; the 1,641st victim was identified last month.
“Clearly the families know and have legal proof [of death], but what is so important to them is the closure of having a scientific identification,” said Dr. Barbara Sampson, the New York City Chief Medical Examiner. “I’ve met with a number of families over the years and the sense of relief that they have is just tremendous.”
But some families of these victims gave up looking for these answers long ago. Michael Burke, whose brother William F. Burke Jr. was a firefighter killed in the towers, recalled the feeling of shock as he visited an assistance center in Manhattan in the days after the attacks, hoping to get information about his brother’s whereabouts. Instead, authorities asked him for a swab of his DNA. At that point, he said, he knew his brother wasn’t coming home. “They’re looking for envelope-sized remains,” he said. “At first you were hoping for a miracle — a guy might walk out there.” But at this point, having long since come to terms with his brother’s death 16 years earlier, “I don’t know what we would do now if they called us for the remains,” Burke said.
The unidentified remains, as well as remains that have not been claimed by relatives, were moved in 2014 to a 2,500-square-foot repository beneath the World Trade Center memorial in Lower Manhattan, although it is not part of the official museum. In between the footprints of the Twin Towers, it is run by the city and is not open to the public. A reflection room for the families of the victims is available next door.
Some family members of 9/11 victims disagreed on the placement of the repository adjacent to the admission-charging 9/11 Museum, but many, like Wolf, say they find comfort in visiting a place where they can remember their loved one. And while Wolf has given up hope of ever receiving Katherine’s remains, he knows exactly what he would do if that should happen: He would plan for her remains, and his, to ultimately be placed together in the columbarium at St. John’s Cathedral in New York City, where her memorial service was held in October of 2001. “She will be with me,” he said.