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NYPD Crime Unit Case Study: Evidence Collection at Ground Zero

Dennis Bush
Detective Investigator, Crime Scene Unit
New York City Police Department

Ground Zero

On May 30, 2002 a solemn ceremony was conducted at “Ground Zero,” the former site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The event marked the official end of the rescue and recovery efforts that were launched after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After nearly nine months and countless man-hours of back-breaking and heartrending labor, the site had been completely cleared of debris, personal effects and human remains. However, this was only accomplished after a methodical and exhaustive search was conducted by numerous agencies, both federal and local. Taking a lead role in this process was the New York City Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit, which was responsible for documenting evidence at the World Trade Center site, as well as the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, and the Office of the City Medical Examiner in Manhattan.

Detectives from the Crime Scene Unit were on the scene literally moments after the initial attack. And 50 investigators continued the work of documenting evidence at all three locations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in two 12 hour shifts.

Collection Process

As operations at the World Trade Center site shifted from rescue to recovery activities, workers began the painstaking process of sifting through the rubble for human remains and personal items. When these items were recovered, Crime Scene Unit detectives were called in to document, tag and remove them for further documentation. Often times, the rubble was so dense that debris had to be removed a section at a time and placed in a nearby area of the site, where it could be finely spread and closely inspected. The sifted material would then be transported by truck and barge to the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island for final examination. All items found would be similarly documented and tagged, and then taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office to begin the identification process.

Tens of thousands of personal effects, along with a significant amount of human remains, were recovered from the site, creating a serious documentation challenge for the Crime Scene Unit.

Photo Documentation

Normally, investigators from the Crime Scene Unit would employ photography to help document a crime scene, recording evidence starting from the outside of the scene, and then working inward to the core area. Numerous photographs would be taken from each aspect of the crime scene – from distant, mid-range, and close-up perspectives. However, Ground Zero was no ordinary crime scene, and the traditional rules could not be applied. “Once the area was secured and items were found, a Crime Scene team would go down into the site and photograph them as best they could, generally with a 35mm camera,” explained Detective Dennis Bush of the New York City Police Department Crime Scene Unit. “After pictures were taken, the evidence and remains were then moved to another location for more thorough documentation with one of our sophisticated close-up instant cameras.”

The NYPD Crime Scene Unit used four Polaroid Macro 5 SLR instant cameras in their work at Ground Zero, Fresh Kills and the Medical Examiner’s Office. The camera’s five built-in lens were utilized to take close-up images for documentation and identification purposes. “The cameras close-up capability allowed us to record information that you just couldn’t see with the naked eye. In some cases, we would find jewelry with some sort of engraving and investigators were able to zoom in on it and capture a name or date of birth. In one instance, an investigator came across a piece of a hip replacement with a serial number on it. We were able to zoom in and document that number as part of the identification process,” added Detective Bush.

As is the case with all macro-photography, establishing scale is important for referencing the actual size of the item being photographed. Scale is a vital tool in the identification of fragmentary objects, including clothing and jewelry.

Cataloging The Evidence

Because of the enormous scope of the job encountered at all three sites, the Crime Scene Unit detectives followed a simple procedure when cataloging the evidence and remains collected. Once the Medical Examiner personnel assigned each object a reference number, the detectives would mark that same number directly on the border of the instant photograph, as well as in a detailed log book. The log book entries also indicated the location where the item was found, date and time it was found.

This technique maintained a complete record of all objects found. The instant photographs were then kept on site in a sequential file for quick access by medical examiner, FBI, or any other state or federal agency personnel requiring information.

Solemn Task

Despite the grim nature of their work, the investigators of the New York City Crime Scene Unit worked diligently in their arduous task. And, ever mindful of the horrendous nature of the tragedy, these detectives carried out their assignment with the utmost dignity and respect for the thousands of victims whose lives were lost that fateful day.

Courtesy of Polaroid

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