Student and alumnus help with post-9/11 healing
Almost a year and a half after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, progress in healing the physical and emotional scars left by the tragedy continues steadily. Amy Bourne, an MBA student, and alumnus Mike Hennessey, BA 1986 and MBA 2001, have contributed to this healing process by developing tools that allow work at Ground Zero to be completed in a more organized and efficient manner.
Bourne spent the year following the attacks as a consultant for the Ground Zero Restoration Project. The goal is to clean up and repair the areas surrounding Ground Zero, including the Winter Garden and Liberty Place. Bourne was one of the main communication links between the various groups, such as the contractors, workers and city officials involved in the cleanup efforts.
"It was very disorganized when I got there," Bourne says. To bring order to the operation, she created a comprehensive database to keep track of the immense expenses the project entailed. "It was a process of making sure things were organized."
Although Bourne was one of only a few women on the site, she enjoyed the unusual setting. "It is very rewarding with construction. You see it evolve from a mess to something real," she says.
Bourne notes the difficulties inherent in the current debate over what to do with the space the Twin Towers once occupied. There is disagreement among the families, owners and residents, all of whom have a viable interest in what happens to the site. The most hotly contested deliberation concerns how much of the space will be dedicated to a memorial and how much will go toward commercial purposes.
"It is hard to get all the public's input, but there is something to be said for the voice of the common New Yorker," Bourne says. She says a solution is possible, however. "I think they are going to find a balance. One side doesn't need to overshadow the other."
Some important considerations are the skyline and how best to complement the harbor, Bourne says. "The big question is how are you going to preserve the New York skyline. There are so many beautiful buildings there, you don't want to overshadow them." At the same time, without the towers, she says a piece of New York is missing. "It was everyone's guidepost. The compass of New York."
Ultimately, Bourne says, "they need to have a mix between keeping the ground sacred, without forgetting there is an economy to sustain."
While Bourne's work revolved around the physical damage to the area, Hennessey is helping the families of victims slowly heal their emotional wounds by using forensics to identify victims' remains.
Hennessey works for Gene Code Forensics, a subsidiary of Gene Codes Corp., based in Ann Arbor. The company provides the forensics biology division of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with two primary services. First, the company, including Hennessey, developed the Mass Fatality Identification System (MFISys), a database that manages DNA profiles of the remains and conducts matches needed to identify victims. Second, the company provides on-site assistance and operations consulting. "Basically we help them tackle their problems," Hennessey says.
For example, Hennessey uses flow charts to map the path of information as it makes its way through the lab to keep track of places it changes hands. "That is where potential problems will arise," he says. "Process mapping is really important; it helps everyone in the process understand what is going on upstream and downstream."
Hennessey also developed the administrative review process, which every DNA match must go through to ensure the right name has been assigned to the victim.
"The science is good. You have a DNA profile from the remains and a toothbrush, and they match 100 percent, so you know it's the same person. However, you have to be sure it is that person's toothbrush, and be able to show how you know that," Hennessey says. This assurance entails checking the chain of custody of the personal artifacts and verifying that that the family donors were linked to the correct victims at the time of collection.
During the two-week period after the attacks, families donated thousands of artifacts, Hennessey says.
Using courtroom standards as a guidepost, the administrative review sorts through these files to be sure, without a doubt, that the match is correct.
While Hennessey does not interact with the victims' families on a daily basis, it is during the administrative review process that the work can get emotional. "We have to research the families to make sure that we have the family tree correct when we do kinship studies. We want to avoid calling the family to confirm that someone was actually the wife of a victim, for example," Hennessey says. "You end up having to read the family biographies, so you learn a lot about the families and victims. That is always hard to read."
Currently, about 1,400 of the 2,800 estimated victims have been identified, but Hennessey says the process could continue for a long time. "There are about 20,000 remains, and we are trying to ID each one. That helps put it into perspective," Hennessey says. Each of the remains must go through the entire process, because it is like starting from scratch every time, he says. "It may have been someone you already IDed, but you won't know that at the start," he says.
All DNA from remains is preserved, although in some cases it is too degraded to make an identification, Hennessey says. "We will exhaust the science today, and as new technology becomes available we will apply it. We are going to be doing this for a while," he says.
Even with new technology, there is no guarantee all the victims will be identified. "We may never be able to ID some people because there is no DNA left," Hennessey says. "That is a very harsh reality for the families."
While the emotional costs may be high at times, Hennessey and Bourne consider it an honor to have helped bring some closure to the families of the victims and the city of New York.