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Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2001

WTC victim buried by wrong family

November 29, 2001

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— A firefighter killed at the World Trade Center was mistakenly identified as one of his fallen comrades and buried by the wrong family because of a remarkable series of similarities between the two men.

The medical examiner's office identified Christopher Santora as Jose Guadalupe, his co-worker at Engine Co. 54 in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan. The two were among 343 firefighters killed in the Sept. 11 attack, 15 of them from Engine Co. 54.

Each man wore a flat gold chain around his neck and each had a distinctive pair of vertebrae in his neck that misled three doctors and a radiologist, said Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the medical examiner.

DNA test results that came back this week exposed the error.

"It's an incredible sequence of events," Borakove said Wednesday. "I don't know what the odds are: two people from the same firehouse, with the same congenital anomaly, dying in the same tragedy."

Santora was given a funeral Oct. 1 by Guadalupe's family. Santora's parents attended, unaware that their son was in the coffin.

"This mistake has caused a lot of grief," Maureen Santora told The New York Times.

Santora's body will be exhumed for a funeral on Saturday. Guadelupe's body is still missing.

Officials from the medical examiner's office and the Fire Department personally informed the families of the error.

"I can't imagine what that is like," said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who also attended the funeral.

The body was identified as Guadalupe on Sept. 24, 11 days after it was pulled from the rubble of the twin towers, wearing an Engine Co. 54 mask. The victim was found near a fire truck, and other firefighters assumed he was Guadalupe, the truck's 37-year-old driver.

The condition of the body made identification through fingerprints impossible, and dental records were not available, Borakove said. A flat gold chain around the neck matched the jewelry typically worn by Guadalupe and, it later turned out, by the 23-year-old Santora.

Fire Department X-rays of Guadalupe were compared with those of the body. The anomaly in the spine led to the medical examiner's identification.

Doctors discovered the error after examining a DNA sample taken from the body, a process performed on all remains. The tests came back Tuesday.

Since Sept. 11, when more than 3,400 people were killed at the trade center, the office of Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch has been inundated a situation complicated by the deaths of 265 more people in the Nov. 12 crash of American Flight 587.

More than 10,000 body parts have been found at ground zero so far, with hundreds more coming in from the Queens crash site, Borakove said.

The medical examiner has identified 453 victims of the attack. It said this was its first mistake.

Guadalupe's mother, Rowena, said at first she was angry, but she had made peace with the error.

"I can bring flowers to the apartment," she said. "I don't have to go to a grave to be with him."

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