Obituary: Dr Charles Hirsch
New York City's chief medical examiner, who worked tirelessly to identify those killed in 9/11
Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30
Dr Charles Hirsch, who has died aged 79, was New York City's chief medical examiner and the man in charge of the forensic operation that followed the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001.
A dignified and softly spoken man, Hirsch had originally intended to run an isolated general practice in Alaska. When an internship in Cleveland introduced him to pathology, however, he found his true calling. In 1989 he succeeded Elliot Gross to the position in New York.
The appointment put Hirsch in charge of one of the largest and busiest laboratories in the United States. In the normal course of events he was responsible for processing around 25,000 deaths a year - nearly half the city's annual total. Of these, only a fraction - 5,000 or so - required an autopsy. Hirsch referred to this forensic process as a "dialogue with the dead".
During his 24 years in office he ran investigations into all manner of untimely deaths. Some, such as the ruling of an accidental drugs overdose in the case of the actor Heath Ledger, attracted international media interest. Other investigations were a matter of public health and safety.
Victims of the Aids epidemic were referred to Hirsch, as were 87 people killed in a fire at a Bronx club in 1990.
When reports came through of the attack on the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, Hirsch was one of the first on the scene. He was in the middle of setting up a temporary morgue, in accordance with emergency protocol, when the South Tower collapsed. The impact knocked him to the ground, breaking all his ribs. Covered in lacerations and grey with ash, he made his way back to his offices on the corner of First Avenue and 30th Street. "He put his hand in his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of change - coins - and dust. . . a pile of pulverised concrete," recalled his colleague Shiya Ribowsky. "He said, 'Shiya, it's the most terrible thing I've ever seen.'"
In the weeks and months that followed, Hirsch and his colleagues embarked on the painstaking process of identifying the 2,753 people killed in the attack. In public, Hirsch swore that he would not rest until every single victim was returned to his or her family; privately, he aimed to identify 70pc of the dead within 100 days. Both goals proved impossible. "If reinforced concrete was rendered into dust,'' he said later, "then it wasn't much of a mystery as to what would happen to people.'' Fires continued to burn for weeks after the event, hampering recovery efforts.
Some 16 refrigerated trailers were set up to house the 16,000 body parts still to be identified. Microscopic fragments of DNA had to be shipped to laboratories and compared against samples taken from victims' possessions, usually follicles from a hairbrush or a razor. To make indirect matches, Hirsch's team took swabs from relatives and tried to match the genetic profile of the remains with the corresponding family.
The work continued on a 24-hour basis from September to December, moving to 16 hours a day from January 2002. By the summer of that year, 1,229 victims had been identified - around 44pc of the total. That number had risen to 1,634 (59pc) by the time of Hirsch's retirement in 2013.
The son of an electrician, Charles Hirsch was born in Chicago on March 30, 1937. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1958, he graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and served as a deputy coroner in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1985 he became chief medical examiner of Suffolk County on Long Island.
Hirsch was not afraid to court controversy in his New York role. In 2007 he caused uproar by ruling that the death of James Zadroga, a police officer who had suffered from respiratory problems since working on recovery operations at Ground Zero, was not caused by inhaling debris but by abuse of prescription drugs. Zadroga's family sought a new verdict from Michael Baden, a pathologist who supported the idea that the officer had died from exposure to toxins in the aftermath of the attack. In 2010 the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was passed, covering emergency workers who become ill in later life.
Hirsch was also chairman of the forensic medicine department at New York University School of Medicine. He had a fondness for epigrams that his students dubbed "Hirschisms", and enforced strict rules in reference to his cases. Judy Melinek, one of his proteges, recalled an occasion when her colleague presented Hirsch with the body of a man who had been "shot by a lady". Hirsch interjected: "Shot by a woman. Ladies don't shoot people."
In 1969, Charles Hirsch married Marie-Claude Fenart. She predeceased him in 2010, and he is survived by a daughter. He died on April 8.