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Investigators focus on identifying remains of all 50 victims of crash

Local and federal medical investigators have hopes they soon might be able to identify all 50 victims of Continental Flight 3407.

Scott J. Zimmerman, director of the Erie County Public Health Laboratory, said Friday that more victims are being identified each day through a combination of forensic methods.

"Honestly, every day, we're getting closer to being able to say it appears we've got a great chance of identifying all 50," Zimmerman said. "We're not there yet, but we're getting very close."

As the cleanup at the crash site winds down, Clarence Center residents who were forced to evacuate are expected to be allowed to return home Sunday.

Zimmerman said DNA samples recovered from the scene are being sent each day to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland, where the DNA matching will be done.

A team of 41 civilians from the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team has been working at the Clarence Center crash site and the Erie County Morgue for the past week.

Zimmerman said he will ask federal officials to keep the federal forensic team here through the weekend and possibly into early next week.

DMORT, as the team is known, operates as part of the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services, and brings a wealth of resources to local tragedies.

"When they came into the Buffalo area last weekend, they brought with them $2.8 million of assets, supplies and equipment," Zimmerman said.

That included a portable morgue, which, as it turned out, was not needed. All the remains have been handled at the county morgue on the campus of Erie County Medical Center.

DMORT's Web site says it brings together, "a team of funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers, fingerprint specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, X-ray technicians, mental health specialists, computer professionals, administrative support staff, and security and investigative personnel."

The federal government will pay for the team's expenses, and Continental Airlines already has told Clarence Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski that it will reimburse the town's expenses.

Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County's health commissioner, said that, out of respect for the families of those who died, the county would not issue any reports on the numbers of those identified.

"We're relying heavily on dental records matching right now," Zimmerman said, "but we've had success with fingerprinting. We've even had success with a few artifacts, so to speak, like jewelry."

"We had a situation where we were able to make comparisons with orthopedic work that had been done," he said. "These are all little bits and pieces that have allowed us to put the jigsaw puzzle together."

The medical team hopes to identify and return the remains to the families.

"In a way, that's kind of our primary goal," Zimmerman said, "to reunite the families with their loved ones."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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