NEW YORK - From the earliest hours after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, one of the most painful and complicated tasks has been determining precisely how many people died and who exactly they were.
It has been a task made difficult by the scale of the losses, the chaos that followed the collapse of the towers, the reluctance of grieving families to give up hope, and the thousands of unfounded or duplicate claims that poured in from around the world.
Now, after a year of tireless labor by a legion of police detectives, medical examiner's staff members, lawyers and city diplomatic affairs staff members, the city is on the verge of establishing the final death toll. After surging as high as 6,729 in late September and dropping below 3,000 in January, the final list of victims should end up at 2,800 or just below. The remaining number of unresolved cases stands at 78, and investigators will report on a late push on those cases by Wednesday.
The need to settle on a solid list is given urgency by the approach of the first anniversary of the attack and the city's plans to read each victim's name during the main ceremony at Ground Zero. If a sign were needed of just how difficult it has been establish the number with confidence, it might be the city medical examiner office's recent experience in listing the victims. On Aug. 19, it released a list of 2,819 names, and this week it will reissue its list with additions and subtractions discovered only in the past two weeks.
At least two people who died of injuries weeks after the attack will be added; they were missed because they had been moved to hospitals out of state before they died. Six names will be deleted, because they turned out to be alive, though they had been designated as missing for almost a year. Four more names are being removed from the count after investigators concluded that the reports of their deaths were fraudulent. One woman will be removed because her death was recorded twice, under her married and maiden names.
The job, undertaken around the world on behalf of heartbroken families and in pursuit of historical accuracy, has been like no other.
DNA kits have been sent, often by special diplomatic couriers, to more than a dozen countries, including India, China and Ecuador. Relatives or friends of possible victims have been interviewed by State Department officials in Bangladesh, Haiti and Nigeria.
Law enforcement officials from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Metropolitan Police in London and even the Pike County sheriff's office in rural Georgia have helped out.
"At some point, you would stop and realize that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of folders in cardboard boxes all around you were people that died," said Judson K. Vickers, senior counsel at the New York City Law Department, which has helped families apply for death certificates even when remains had not been found.
Some of the toughest cases, not surprisingly, have concerned the victims who had the lowest profiles and stations in life, such as illegal immigrants who worked in cafeterias or a 77-year-old Bronx man who for years had shined shoes at the trade center complex. His name was added to the list only after survivors who were shown his photograph confirmed that he had been there that day.