CAP Member, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner on 9/11, Has Died

Dr. Charles S. Hirsch oversaw identification of 2,753 victims of 9/11

The New York Times

Charles S. Hirsch, New York’s Chief Medical Examiner on 9/11, Dies at 79 

Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, the New York City chief medical examiner who raced to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and returned to the morgue with every rib broken to face the monumental forensic challenge of identifying the 2,753 victims of the attacks, died on Friday in Westwood, N.J. He was 79. 

His death, from complications of several illnesses, was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. Dr. Hirsch, a forensic pathologist, was the chief medical examiner from 1989 to 2013. 

In that role, akin to a coroner in other jurisdictions, Dr. Hirsch resuscitated an office that had suffered from criticism under his predecessor, Elliot M. Gross, who was dismissed in 1987 by Mayor Edward I. Koch for what was described as management deficiencies. 

Dr. Hirsch, a taciturn and meticulous Chicagoan, was a special panel’s unanimous choice to fill the vacancy. 

In 2001, when two jetliners commandeered by terrorists struck the World Trade Center, Dr. Hirsch and six aides rushed downtown to establish a temporary morgue. 

When the North Tower collapsed, two aides were severely injured. Dr. Hirsch, thrown to the ground, broke all of his ribs. His cuts sutured by a medical team, he returned to the examiner’s squat brick headquarters at First Avenue and 30th Street, coated in a ghostlike gray soot. 

That substance, which he would keep in a glass bowl on his desk, explained the cause of the victims’ deaths. 

“If reinforced concrete was rendered into dust,” he told The New York Times in 2002, “then it wasn’t much of a mystery as to what would happen to people.” 

His job was to give the victims back their names and restore what had distinguished them.

More than 16,000 body parts that had not been identified or returned to families were dried to delay decomposition and to redeem Dr. Hirsch’s pledge to do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to identify every victim. 

Privately, his original goal was to identify about 2,000, or 70 percent. Dr. Hirsch later acknowledged that many of the remains had been cremated immediately in the attack or during the fires that smoldered for months. He wrote in a 2003 letter that it was “virtually certain that at least some human tissue” was mixed with debris that had been carted off to a Staten Island landfill. 

Teeth, wedding rings, genetic markers from hair samples and other means of matching a microscopic body part to a name were fed into a database. To ease the pain of victims’ families, death certificates were issued without the presence of bodies. 

By the time Dr. Hirsch retired, 1,634 of the 2,753 people killed or missing — about 59 percent — had been identified. 

In the mold of Dr. Milton Helpern, who held the position from 1954 to 1973, Dr. Hirsch was fiercely independent. Serving under four mayors, from Mr. Koch through Michael R. Bloomberg, he rebuffed public pressure in controversial cases. 

As an expert witness for the prosecution, he rebutted the testimony of a former chief medical examiner, Dominick DiMaio, who said that the four men at whom Bernard Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante, aimed his gun in a Manhattan train in 1984 were standing in a menacing semicircle when they were shot. (Mr. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder anyway.) 

In another high-profile case, Dr. Hirsch was recruited by Robert B. Fiske Jr., the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to inquire into the 1993 death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., a White House deputy counsel in the Clinton administration. Mr. Foster’s body was found in a park in Virginia. Dr. Hirsch rejected the claims of conspiracy theorists that Mr. Foster had been murdered to cover up potential scandals and ruled the death a suicide. 

A year later, in a case that raised questions about police brutality, Dr. Hirsch declared that Anthony Baez, a 29-year-old security guard, had died while in police custody of asphyxiation caused by “compression of his neck and chest.” A scuffle had ensued after the football that Mr. Baez and his brothers were tossing accidentally hit a police car. 

A number of experts had blamed the World Trade Center attack for the 2006 death of James Zadroga, a police detective who had spent 450 hours as a rescue worker at ground zero. Dr. Hirsch unequivocally attributed his death of respiratory disease to other causes. (The Zadroga case prompted state and federal legislation expanding treatment and benefits.) 

Dr. Hirsch’s autopsies constituted what he called a “dialogue with the dead.” With many of the World Trade Center victims, the conversation, he said, began with: “Who are you?” The next question was: “What killed you?” 

He and his colleagues also posed those questions to AIDS patients during the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s; to relatives of the 87 people killed in a flash fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx in 1990; and to victims of a jetliner crash in the Rockaways that killed 265 people just two months after 9/11. 

“He treated every anonymous citizen of New York City, every employee and every politician the same way — with respect, dignity and dedication to getting the job done with scientific and medical excellence, the utmost professionalism and great compassion,” Dr. Barbara Sampson, Dr. Hirsch’s former deputy and the city’s current chief medical examiner, said in an email. “He was able to explain the most complex topic to a medical student, to a jury or to a grieving family member with ease.” 

Charles Sidney Hirsch was born in Chicago on March 30, 1937, to Max Hirsch, an electrician, and the former Dorothy Gurevitz. 

He received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1958, and graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. He originally planned to open a general practice in Alaska — while it was isolated, he acknowledged, “I’m a very self-contained kind of a person and I don’t recall ever in my life being lonesome” — but during an internship in Cleveland he found his true calling in forensic pathology. 

He served as a pathologist in Baltimore and was a deputy coroner in Cuyahoga and Hamilton Counties, Ohio, before being hired as the chief medical examiner of Suffolk County on Long Island in 1985.

He married Marie-Claude Fenart, who predeceased him. He is survived by their daughter, Sophie Ghiraldini, and two grandsons. 

In New York, where he was also the chairman of the forensic medicine department at New York University School of Medicine, he recruited leading pathologists, modernized the medical examiner’s offices in Brooklyn and Queens, and opened satellite sites on Staten Island and in the Bronx. 

Today, the medical examiner’s office employs more than 30 examiners; conducts an average of 5,500 autopsies annually in deaths from crimes, accidents, suicides or those that are deemed suspicious; identifies missing persons; operates the largest public DNA laboratory in the country; and maintains a repository for unidentified remains at the National September 11 Memorial. 

At Dr. Hirsch’s retirement a few years ago, Dr. Sampson recalled her mentor’s abiding principle: “That the nobility of the chief medical examiner comes from service to the anonymous citizens of New York City at the worst times of their lives.” 

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As the leading organization for board-certified pathologists, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) serves patients, pathologists, and the public by fostering and advocating excellence in the practice of pathology and laboratory medicine worldwide. With more than 18,000 physician members, the CAP has led laboratory accreditation for more than 50 years with more than 7,700 CAP-accredited laboratories in 50 countries.

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Quick facts

Dr. Hirsch served under four NYC mayors
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He ruled Vincent Foster's death a suicide
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Charles Hirsch was born in Chicago on March 30, 1937
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