Forensic pathologist details grim work helping identify bodies after 9/11 in new book

Warning: This article is graphic.

By Larry McShane New York Daily News

On the morning of 9/11, forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek tilted her head skyward at the plane buzzing above Manhattan.

Seconds later, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The first Ground Zero bodies reached her at the city medical examiner’s office within 24 hours.

Melinek, upon setting eyes on her first victim, nearly lost her composure: All that remained was a crushed head and a torso.

“I had never seen anything like it,” she recalls. “I had seen people killed by subway trains, and speeding cars, run over by trucks, crushed by industrial equipment, fallen from great heights, burned and battered — but never all at the same time.”

The doctor recounts those harrowing and horrifying days in “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner” — her fascinating account of life in the autopsy suite at 520 First Ave.

The book, written with her husband, T.J. Mitchell, arrives in stores Aug. 12.

A colleague came to Melinek’s aid as she stared at the grisly remains that September morning. The co-worker “scooped up pieces of the head with both her hands and nudged them in the right general direction,” she writes.

Melinek’s job: Assembling a face for a photograph to be taken. Her victim, a white man in his 40s, could now be identified.

The next body bag held only a leg. A piece of black plastic shrapnel resembling the grip of a Glock pistol stuck out from the flesh.

Beneath the skin, deep in the muscle, she discovered a fragment of a personal check with a routing number and partially legible name.

An FBI agent on the scene made a request that was more of an order.

“I want any paper with Arabic writing on it,” he told the doctors. “Please also let us know as soon as you come across anything that looks (like) a box cutter.”

Several dozen box cutters piled up before agents told the doctors to focus simply on identification.

The emotional angst in her office followed the physical trauma of co-workers who rushed to the twin towers.

Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch and a team headed for the burning site. They were consulting with a fire captain below the 110-story buildings when the first tower collapsed.

A brick smashed one doctor in the head. Two others were injured — one with a broken ankle, the other suffering fractured ribs.

Hirsch returned to the office covered in white ash and red blood from a scrape on his head. The bodies of those who jumped, he told Melinek, “took forever to fall.”

Melinek and her fellow pathologists, their numbers swollen by medical examiners from the boroughs, were confronted with the enormity of what lay ahead that afternoon.

In a meeting, they were told of a new classification system in which each specimen “larger than your thumb” would be tagged with a label marked DM zero one — for “Disaster Manhattan 2001” — and assigned a number. Melinek was shocked to see the preprinted labels numbered more than 100,000.

Forensic professionals from across the country, members of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, soon joined them in a converted compound made up of tents in the loading dock and parking lot.

The guidelines were stark: Whole bodies took precedence, with parts and fragments to be processed later. The pathologists waited throughout the day — the rumor was a barge coming up the East River would transport bodies — but there were no arrivals on 9/11.

When Melinek arrived the morning after, four refrigerated tractor-trailers were parked behind the building for use as mobile storage for the remains.

The bodies began arriving in ambulances. By 8 p.m. that first day, the pathologists had processed only 110. Then Melinek heard a beep-beep-beep.

The first tractor-trailer had arrived from Ground Zero.

People silently bowed their heads.

Victim after victim emerged from the back of the truck. Some took less than 30 seconds to tag. Others required up to half an hour. The routine settled into 12-hour shifts.

During one typical shift, Melinek’s station handled a burly fireman, a young Asian woman and a white man with a shattered face. A woman’s hand, bearing a wedding ring, was found deep inside the chest of a man’s torso — revealed only by an X-ray.

One delivery brought a batch of feet. Some remains were nothing more than a ribbon of skin. As the days wore on, what arrived began showing signs of decomposition.

Three weeks in, Melinek opened a fireman’s jacket to find nothing but the bones of his arms in the sleeves.

There were other “macabre” moments. One night she found herself picking over body parts as a thunderstorm rolled over the makeshift morgue and lightning broke the sky.

One day, Melinek’s husband appeared with their young son, Danny, in a stroller to meet her for dinner. They walked past the seemingly endless line of refrigerator trucks stockpiled to hold bodies on Second Ave.

Mitchell was shaken.

“All those trucks for blocks and blocks. I don’t know how you do it, Judy,” he said.

“Training,” she replied.

Melinek writes that she actually felt grateful that her profession gave her a useful role in the massive recovery effort.

But she often wrestled with her emotions. She found it hard to bear, for example, when the bodies of two fireman [sic] arrived on September 30.

One bore twin tattoos of baby angels on his upper arms inscribed with the names and birth dates of children. The other wore a gold Claddagh ring.

Melinek broke down entirely after finding a picture of a young boy in another firefighter’s wallet. She ripped off her surgical mask as it flooded with tears and ran from the tent. Down on her haunches in the parking lot, she sobbed into her hands.

In the midst of the 9/11 nightmare, the anthrax attacks began one week later. Kathy Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who worked as a supply clerk at Manhattan Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital, died of anthrax inhalation Oct. 31.

Melinek was enlisted to assist in the autopsy after tech workers refused to enter the room.

“I was floored,” she writes. “I had never seen (Office of Chief Medical Examiner) morgue technicians spooked by a disease — not HIV or hepatitis, not tuberculosis, not even West Nile virus.”

The effects of the toxin on the body were devastating, although Lenox Hill Hospital doctors had arrested the infection using the most powerful known antibiotics.

Melinek estimates that fewer than 50 living doctors had ever seen a case of anthrax in the U.S. She was not grateful to join their numbers.

Nor was she prepared when more bodies arrived from the Nov. 12 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, Queens.

Melinek worked steadfastly as FBI agents again circled the room. An NYPD detective helped her weigh organs.

But when a black bag zipped open to reveal the bodies of children, she froze. Another pathologist stepped up to take her place.

By March, the work was mostly a matter of dealing with bones.

But in mid-August 2002, Melinek received a call that new 9/11 remains had been found.

Workers had discovered them atop a scaffolding at 90 West St. At the morgue, an anthropologist identified a left hip.

Melinek concluded the bone came from one of the planes that hit the WTC. How could anything reach the top of a skyscraper one-fifth of a mile away unless it was traveling high and fast?

Melinek, after training for two years at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, took a job in placid San Jose, Calif. She now works as a forensic pathologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

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