In counties and cities across the country, the medical examiner is often a steady player in the rotating cast of public officials. Turn on the evening news, see that familiar face solemnly addressing a bank of cameras, and you know: Someone has died.
But in New York City, where the cameras never click off and the scramble to stand before them never ends, few people know the name, much less the face, of their long-serving chief medical examiner. For the record, his name is Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, and he was appointed to the position back in 1989 by Mayor Edward I. Koch, recently deceased.
Dr. Hirsch may be the most important city official you do not know. Combining quiet rigor with an almost defiant independence, he has investigated many thousands of deaths – from the sadly common (a newborn, found in a trash can by a janitor in the Bronx in 1997) to the horribly historic (the 2,753 victims of the World Trade Center attack of 2001).
“Dr. Hirsch was a visionary and dedicated public servant whose work earned him world renown – he was often called ‘the father of modern forensic pathology’ – and helped make New York City a global leader,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Tuesday in a statement that singled out the doctor’s work in the aftermath of Sept. 11. “He leaves a legacy that he can be proud of and which will serve our city well for many years to come.”
Dr. Barbara Sampson, Dr. Hirsch’s longtime deputy and now the city’s acting chief medical examiner, seconded the mayor’s words by recalling 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. It’s not about the chief medical examiner.”
Dr. Hirsch said as much when he accepted the job. Mayor Koch had dismissed the previous chief medical examiner, Dr. Elliot M. Gross, for what he called a lack of leadership, and Dr. Hirsch – a forensic pathologist from Chicago who had most recently served as the medical examiner for Suffolk County – was expected to restore order to an office in public disarray.
He quickly signaled that he would not bend to public opinion or law-enforcement influence when he declared his commitment to “independent” autopsies. “That is the only kind of autopsy I know how to give, whoever I may be working for,” he said. “That is my hallmark.”
After that, save for a rare public appearance here and there, Dr. Hirsch remained out of the camera’s view, preferring instead to explain causes of death to people confused and hurt by it.
To the relatives of the 87 people killed in the flash fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, in 1990. To those eager to learn more about the spread of the virus that causes AIDS. To the family of Anthony Baez, a young man who died in police custody as a result, in part, of asphyxiation caused by “compression of his neck and chest.” And, in the case of Sept. 11, to the world.
In the disaster’s first minutes, Dr. Hirsch and six aides rushed to establish an on-site temporary morgue. When the first tower fell, he was thrown to the ground, bruising his body and cutting his hand badly enough to require sutures. Years later, Dr. Sampson said, he would discover that he had broken every rib.
He returned to his squat, matter-of-fact office on Manhattan’s East Side, a ghostlike figure covered in white dust, to oversee the beginning of a process that continues to this day: the quest to identify the nearly 20,000 body parts that were collected in the hours, weeks and even years afterward.
Presented with this task, Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues developed what has become the largest DNA laboratory in the country. They also created a tentlike sanctuary in the back of the building, near the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, where relatives of victims could reflect and feel closeness.
In a rare interview with The New York Times in 2002, Dr. Hirsch talked about the forensic pathologist’s need to engage in what he called the “dialogue with the dead.” For so many of those killed on Sept. 11, that conversation included this first question: “Who are you?”
That question is still being asked. Of the 2,753 people killed or missing, 1,634 – or 59 percent – have been identified.
Dr. Ross E. Zumwalt, the chief medical investigator for the State of New Mexico, said that in addition to championing the independence of the role of medical examiner, Dr. Hirsch would also be remembered for overseeing major advancements in DNA identification and mass-fatality response operations.
If there is a nick in Dr. Hirsch’s legacy, Dr. Zumwalt said, it comes from a general refusal to “lend his authority and expertise” at conventions and professional gatherings. “But knowing him as well as I do,” he added, “I think he thought he could promote the field by doing the best possible job.”
Dr. Hirsch’s deputy, Dr. Sampson, agreed. She said he helped to train three or four pathologists a year, and always made sure to display their photographs in the office. Among those pictured, she said, are at least 15 people who became chief medical examiners around the country.
So, then, a city constant departs – a demanding boss, thin and fit, who wore suspenders, smoked a pipe and, for many years, kept a glass bowl on his desk. Its contents: some 9/11 dust that he pulled from his pocket after being knocked to the ground by the first tower’s collapse.
Since Dr. Hirsch was unavailable for comment, a glimpse of the man might be found in his response to a decision by Mr. Bloomberg, back in 2004, to remove the emergency sirens and lights from the cars of scores of city officials, after reports of some abuses.
Dr. Hirsch surrendered the lights and sirens voluntarily, saying he had used them only once in 15 years, rushing to the scene of an airplane crash at La Guardia Airport. “It seemed to me if I had gotten there 10 minutes later, it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference,” he said.
When asked about the loss of those loud, flashing symbols of status, he said: “If I need that to define who I am, I better redefine my priorities.”
Source: NY Times