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Area dentist helps ID storm dead

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Ray Miller had dental records -- but no bodies to match them with.

On the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, the situation was exactly the opposite.

Miller, a Lancaster dentist and member of the FEMA-governed Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, spent the last two weeks putting names to Katrina's unidentified dead.

"We've done the job of helping return these victims to their families," Miller said.

Like 9/1 1, identification teams in the Gulfport, Miss., morgue had precious little to work with, but in an altogether different way.

The hurricane destroyed about one-third of the dental offices in southern Mississippi, taking with it all of the office records, Miller said. On the other hand, it did leave behind the full bodies of its victims.

"Here, we have victims, but we're having trouble getting the other side of it," Miller said. "We don't have a lot of information to work off of. Those things were destroyed."

A makeshift "bare bones" morgue housed inside a partially destroyed and secluded hangar at Gulfport International Airport was the place Miller and others used whatever clues they could to put a name to a body.

Some family members searching for lost loved ones turn whatever dental records they find over to authorities for help in the identification process while others are forced to rely on providing profiles and defining characteristics that can identify a victim.

"A victim's family member will go to a Family Assistance Center and make a report. They'll give us as much information in the report as they can," Miller said. "We'll take that information, and we'll search using that information."

Sometimes, identifications can be made visually based on photographs. However, in many cases that became impossible because of the deteriorated condition of the bodies.

"Personal effects can give us a presumptive ID, but medical devices, dental and DNA are the most scientific methods," Miller said.

The task four years ago in New York City was equally daunting for the opposite reasons.

There, Miller had those dental records but was working with little more than small fractured shards of jawbones and teeth to piece together human identities of the World Trade Center victims.

The setting has been a lot different this time, too.

Instead of spending days in a sterile medical examiner's office and nights in a Manhattan hotel, Miller dealt with the heat and humidity of the Deep South, dividing his sleep among rental vehicles, refrigerated tractor-trailers and tents in southern Mississippi.

"It's a little different," he said.

Search and recovery teams gathered the dead and trucked them to the morgue in Gulfport in refrigerated units. "Most of the victims drowned," Miller said.

A member of the Air National Guard, Miller trained at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in forensic dentistry. He's been on the disaster team since 2000 and also serves as a consultant to the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office in Buffalo.

Miller, among about 160 personnel from around the country working at the Gulfport airport hangar on identifications, worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts between Sept. 2 and Sept. 16, when he returned to Buffalo.

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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