January 23, 2004

New York Settles on a Number That Defines Tragedy: 2,749 Dead in Trade Center Attack



Unless something unexpected happens, this figure could well be the final count that history books will record as the number of victims who died in the World Trade Center attack, city officials said yesterday.

The count of World Trade Center deaths has been in flux since the day of the attack, now 28 months ago. Only this past week did the city remove the final three unconfirmed missing claims from the list of presumed dead, which at one point reached as high as 6,700.

What this means is that 2,749 death certificates have now been issued for World Trade Center victims, matching exactly the official count of missing victims maintained by the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. This is the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, that these two tallies have matched.

"Based on the information we have now, we believe this is the final number," Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, said yesterday.

The last three names removed from the missing count - Kacinga Kabeya, Kapinga Ngalula and Sneha Ann Philips - demonstrate why it has taken so long to reach what may be the final count.

Mr. Kabeya and his wife, Ms. Ngalula, both of McKinney, Tex., were reported missing by a relative after the two, who had been visiting New York City in September 2001, disappeared. But the city has never been able to determine definitively that they were at the World Trade Center, so last week, city officials finally decided to remove them from the list.

Ms. Philips, a 31-year-old doctor who lived near the World Trade Center site, was last seen the day before the attack at a department store across from the twin towers, her mother, Ansu Philips, said yesterday. But because she disappeared the night before the attack - her husband was concerned when she did not come home on Sept. 10 - her family has been unable to prove that she died in the attack, as her mother still adamantly believes. "Her name should be on that list," Ansu Philips said yesterday.

As of yesterday, 1,538 victims have been identified based on physical remains, Ms. Borakove said. Another 1,208 are on the list on the basis of a death certificate that was issued after sufficient evidence was submitted to a state court that the person was at the trade center or on one of the airplanes. Finally, three people died outside New York City from injuries received in the attack.

It remains possible that a mistake was made in the identification of a victim or in a court action confirming a person's death as a result of the attack, including or excluding a particular victim. But city officials say they are reasonably confident that their work to date has been accurate, rooting out fraud, for example, before a death certificate was issued.

The recent slight decrease in the total, which was last adjusted in October, is of little concern to people like Nikki Stern, whose husband, Jim Potorti, died in the attack.

"Whether it was 3,000, 2,900 or 2,700, I don't believe it makes a difference to individual families that suffered a loss or to those who witnessed or were touched by the event," she said. "What matters is that magnitude of the loss and the way it affected us all."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company