'FOUND' bell offered hope
TIMES NEWS PHOTO BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS Vertel Martin holds an embroidered shirt depicting the twin towers over her heart as she remembers the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The sign from the NYPD Missing Persons Task Force is kept in her office.
Emotional and psychological scars remain for those whose job it was to identify the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center nine years ago.
Vertel Martin, an associate professor of criminal justice and co-coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program at Northampton Community College, was the investigative coordinator of the 9/11 NYPD Missing Persons Task Force after the towers fell. She was well equipped for the work - being a graduate of the FBI National Academy and serving as a lieutenant with the New York City Police Department, from which she retired in 2002 - but the task she faced was overwhelming.
As a leader of 100 officers, Martin mustered her squad to rescue and recover victims. They conducted a protracted inquiry and investigation in order to account for the status of the more than 7,000 people who were originally reported missing. It was this kind of tedious work that gave many family members and relatives some sort of closure.
Here are Martin's personal observations of that important time of American history nearly a decade ago.
Q: What are your thoughts as we observe the ninth anniversary of 9/11?
A: The recollections about this episode in U.S. history, and about this time in my life are still very painful, even though nine years will soon have passed. Time does not heal all. There are emotional and psychological scars that remain. It is difficult for me to revisit this period, which I recall as my final call to duty. The true heroes in my eyes are the men and women first responders, and volunteers who provided auxiliary support to them as they did their work in the wretched trenches. I had the privilege to work with and walk among them. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice then; they're gone, but not forgotten. Several are just now taking final leave because of their unprotected exposure to the toxic environment. Others are still alive, but suffer from a variety of chronic health conditions such as upper and lower respiratory conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic sinus problems, and mental health difficulties, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Q: I understand you generally don't do newspaper interviews about your former job and your post-Sept. 11 role. Why did you decide to do this interview?
A: It is in all of the first responders' honor, as well as for the victims and their relatives, that I have decided to respond to your questions.
Q: What was the role of the Missing Persons Task Force?
A: The NYPD's 9/11 World Trade Center Missing Persons Task Force was formed and housed in the Internal Affairs Bureau, in response to the heinous crimes committed by terrorists at the World Trade Center on that date. Initially, and eventually for many months thereafter, rescue and recovery of victims remained the top priority. However, the less well-known behind-the-scenes urgent business involved an accounting of human lives not lost (the Good), those lost (the Bad) and detecting fraudulent claims (the Ugly).
Q: How was your team selected?
A: I personally hand-selected the best investigative specialists assigned to the Internal Affairs Bureau to work double-shifts, seven days a week for many months, to follow up on leads and tips.
Q: What was the most difficult aspect of the task force's job?
A: The entire process required a painstakingly meticulous, protracted and sustained inquiry into the thousands of missing persons reports generated from multiple sources. The task force members worked under a self-imposed minute-by-minute deadline, primarily because we wanted to work as fast as we could to give the family members and relatives some sort of closure. This task was also accomplished in spite of the tremendous strain created by such a horrific man-made catastrophic event of such magnitude, intensity and lethal consequences.
Q: How was the process conducted?
A: An "official" master list had to be created using reports gathered from the Red Cross, the media and from various other "official" and unofficial sources. This was extremely problematic because there were multiple missing persons reports generated for the same person either by relatives directly, by third parties or by various official national, international and not-for-profit agencies. It was not uncommon to have 10 reports generated naming the same person. Screening these multiple reports, and deciphering them proved to be quite puzzling.
Q: What problems did you encounter?
A: Many reported their acquaintance's, friend's or relative's information using variations of his or her name, dates of birth that differed by month or year, incomplete or inaccurate last known addresses, or places of employment, and so on.
Reports were also generated by people who hadn't seen or heard from their relatives in years. This created obstacles for investigators because many reporters either provided very little information to task force investigators or the information on the reports was extremely outdated.
Verifying undocumented civilians was another problem because many of the reporters only spoke and understood foreign languages, and once interpreters were able to translate the information, the reporters could not provide investigators with any proof that the individual had ever been in the U.S., let alone at the WTC on 9/11.
Other confounding issues arose such as verifying that homeless people were victims.
Q: You said your job also involved accounting for people not lost in the attack. What did you mean?
A: In the majority of cases we discovered that people who were originally reported to be missing as a direct result of the WTC attack were in fact alive somewhere in the world. A disposition of a case as "Found-In-Fact-Alive" meant that the investigator would find the person reported to be missing, and speak to him or her in person, or she/he would arrange for the dispatch of law enforcement agents from other jurisdictions within and outside of the U.S. to go to a specific premise or dwelling to verify that the reported person was in fact alive before a case was marked "closed."
Q: Tell us about the "FOUND" bell.
A: I can still hear the sound of the "FOUND" bell that we set up in the hallway adjoining investigators' offices. When an investigator found someone who had been reported missing "alive," she/he would sound the "FOUND" bell. That ring was cathartic, and gave us the psychological fortitude to carry on. That bell would sound all day and permeate our workspaces, providing just enough stress to counteract the distress that we refused to succumb to. When I retired, task force investigators gave me that bell as a memento, along with the task force's shingle, and I will cherish both for the rest of my days.
Q: What happened when someone was "found?"
A: Needless to say, investigators had to act with sensitivity, patience, courtesy and tact when contacting members of the public, many of whom were located in foreign countries. In most cases, family members and friends were happily reunited with those that they thought had perished.
Q: Not everyone wanted to be "found," is that right?
A: In some cases, once found, individuals did not want to be contacted by the person who reported them missing, citing an array of personal reasons. In other cases, persons who were reported missing, or those who might have had information about those on the list, actively eluded investigators because civil, criminal or immigration matters were pending. And, in some cases, scams were perpetrated and those who made the reports were eventually arrested for filing false reports and/or perpetrating frauds against the various not-for-profit help organizations and/or against the state or federal government's victims' compensation or other funding programs. In a few cases, people who suffered from mental illnesses reported their other "personalities," or non-existent third persons, or their long-before deceased relatives missing. This was a conundrum for investigators indeed; and the amount of investigator-hours it took to solve such cases drained our already-overextended resources.
Q: Did that frustrate your workers?
A: Of course, but the worst case scenario was when investigators verified the missing person report as "confirmed."