Tomorrow, New York City will hold a Missing Persons Day at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) at 421 26th Street and 1st Avenue, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There has been a statewide event in Albany for the past 13 years, but this is the first focused on the Metropolitan area.
Over 100,000 people are actively missing nationwide, and last year 13,000 went missing from New York City alone. Bodies can often end up in the custody of nearby medical examiners, but in New York City, the unclaimed can have a grimmer fate and end up on Hart Island, the potter's grave where over 800,000 unidentified bodies are buried.
Families have previously had trouble accessing the island, which sits across from City Island in the Bronx, because it's controlled strictly by the Department of Correction; inmates from Rikers Island dig the graves. Groups like the Hart Island Project, a non-profit run by Melinda Hunt, have been advocating for families to be granted access to records and graves since 1976, when the island was closed to the public.
Using updated DNA technology, the OCME has been able to reevaluate over a thousand cases dating as far back as 1990. Julie Bolcer, the Director of Public Affairs at the OCME, said they are in the process of collecting DNA samples from 1,200 bodies and they now operate one of the nation's few DNA Missing Persons Units. But, she said, one DNA sample isn't enough.
"Even if we get finally get the DNA, it's no good alone," Bolcer said. "We still need the missing link."
Tomorrow, families will have the opportunity to give DNA samples to the OCME to be compared with the DNA collected from the unidentified bodies. They will also be matched with DNA collections nationwide, in the hopes of finding a match. They have dental records and fingerprints that can be analyzed. The OCME can also send home DNA kits, for those unable to attend, and will be continuing their DNA project beyond tomorrow's event.
Bolcer stressed that while collecting DNA is a draw of Missing Persons Day, it's just a small part of the day planned.
"It's also about support," she said. "The National Institute of Justice calls this the 'nation's silent mass disaster.' There will also be emotional support for people who have long missing family members and loved ones."