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Bringing closure to the grieving

The horror is over; the pieces have been picked up. In the place where a plane carrying 49 people crashed into a Clarence home, destroying both with the chilling accuracy of disaster, all that remains is an empty lot.

You'd never know anything happened there. Not less than two weeks ago, and certainly not this: terror, death, teams of investigators combing through soil and debris with spades and sifters, looking for answers to the only question that matters anymore, which is why.

Real answers to that question may, unfortunately, be a long time in coming. In the meantime, there is one job left to do. And Ray Miller is doing it.

"My job is to work for the families," said Miller, 50, of North Buffalo. "To get them their loved ones back -- bottom line."

In regular life, Miller, a husband and father of two, is a dentist. He runs a busy local practice and spends his days doing the usual sorts of things: filling cavities, fixing caps, telling people to floss.

When crisis hits, however, Miller becomes something else entirely: a healer. That's the only word for what he does for people whose lives have been brutally rent by tragedy.

Grieving spouses, shattered children, haunted friends -- Miller's painstaking, time-consuming work as a forensic dentist puts him in a position to give them the one thing they crave in the aftermath of destruction: knowledge.

Miller, a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, has spent the last couple of decades training for terrible scenarios. After 9/1 1, he was at the World Trade Center site in New York, helping put names to the remnants left behind.

After Katrina, he was in New Orleans, doing the same thing.

It's an aspect of tragedy we'd prefer not to think about. Miller feels the same way. He believes in being prepared, but he also never thought he'd use these skills in his own hometown.

"We are prepared for it," Miller said. "But -- I wasn't thinking this would ever happen here, at all."

We know, now, just how important this work of identification is. After 9/1 1, countless family members of the nearly 3,000 victims of the World Trade Center attacks expressed anguish and frustration at not having any positive identification of their loved ones' remains. Sudden, senseless loss of life always hurts; what makes it unbearable is lacking the closure of confirmation.
In the days since the crash, he's spent 14-hour shifts inside the medical examiner's office on the Erie County Medical Center campus. It's a task for meticulous minds: sorting through evidence, weeding out improbabilities, seeking matches. Checking and double-checking, because you don't want to be wrong, ever, when you do work like this. The job isn't going to be over any time soon.

"It probably is going to be a while," Miller said.

Disaster brings responsibility. We never asked for this moment in history -- the fall of Flight 3407 from the sky -- but, when it happened, this community came together to meet the challenge.

We can be proud of that. Proud, too, of the heroes who aided in the formidable task of recovery. Firefighters. Police. Medical personnel and cleanup crews and counselors and just plain regular folk who did whatever they could to help the suffering.

Miller, too, deserves our gratitude, along with the other forensics experts who are working together to give families some measure of peace. The final job is theirs, and it may be one of the hardest: to return to the dead the one thing they possessed in life that, even now, matters. Their names.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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