CT native, a hero of 9/11, helped identify victims to bring information to families

From left, Kurt Mundorff, his daughter, Sarah Mundorff, Amy Zelson Mundorff, her mother, Myra Zelson, and, in back, her father, Dr. Joseph Zelson.

From left, Kurt Mundorff, his daughter, Sarah Mundorff, Amy Zelson Mundorff, her mother, Myra Zelson, and, in back, her father, Dr. Joseph Zelson.

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ORANGE — Amy Zelson Mundorff has been hailed a hero of 9/11 from the highest ranks of government for her work identifying the remains of victims of the terrorist attacks.

But Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the attacks, she will be “goat cuddling” with her daughter instead of attending any official remembrance events.

“It’s just kind of a personal day for me,” said Mundorff, who grew up in Orange. “I love baby goats, so does my daughter — they are soft and make adorable noises — what a better way to make us smile.”

From left, Kurt Mundorff, Sarah Mundorff and Amy Zelson Mundorff in 2018.

From left, Kurt Mundorff, Sarah Mundorff and Amy Zelson Mundorff in 2018.

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Mundorff, a forensic anthropologist with the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office at the time of the terrorist attacks, had the “incredibly rewarding, satisfying” job of helping to identify the remains of victims. She went over 22,000 identification tasks in all.

The first three months, she and the team worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day on remains, using DNA, fingerprints and dental records to find a match. Gradually, the days and hours lessened.

As much as that may make the average person wince, that was her job, her training.

“It was also a matter of doing what you had to do,” she said, 20 years later. “I didn’t give myself time to think about anything when I was working on it.”

The real trauma for Mundorff was in the feelings after being injured by the crumbling twin towers that morning and surviving when so many were dead around her.

“Just being down there that day and surviving was the hard part because everybody around me died,” Mundorff said. “I remember the smell and the feel.”

While she would work again in a heartbeat to identify victims, Mundorff said, “I wouldn’t go down there again as a first responder, if I could do it over.”

Mundorff was 32when the 9/11 attacks took place, married a year, and two years into her “dream job” at the NYC ME’s office, where she thought she would spend her career.

That morning on Sept. 11, 2001, at the ME’s office, “We got word that a plane hit the towers and it was a big disaster so a small group of us went to assess the situation,” she recalled.

They were at the scene, a friend saw the building coming down and told her, “Run.”

As she ran, what Mundorff described as a “debris cloud,” picked up all 5 feet of her and threw her into a wall, burying her in debris.

At a critical juncture in that emergency situation, she pulled her jacket over her face to create an air pocket, a trick for avalanche survival husband Kurt Mundorff taught her before he proposed to her on Mount Rainier. That lesson may have saved her life.

“I thought that was the end of it,” Mundorff said, referring to her life.

When she came to, and dug her way out, Mundorff found her colleagues alive but there was death everywhere.

“I really don’t remember a lot — I was just scared,” she said.

She and colleagues managed to get out for medical care in New Jersey.

Mundorff suffered a concussion, traumatic brain injury and tiny fractures in her neck as a result of her 9/11 injuries and still lives with the effects, including a common lung condition of 9/11 from inhaling debris at ground zero, where she also periodically went to help with recovery efforts.

Two days after her injuries, Mundorff was back at work in the mortuary on the team identifying remains on tables, with two to six people working.

Unlike the cases she and the team saw in their daily work, it was known the manner of death here for all was “homicide,” and the cause, “blunt force trauma,” she said.

“It was a very long and complicated process,” Mundorff said, noting where DNA testing was required they would have to match a sample from families.

She’s not sure how many people they identified in the three years that she was there, but Mundorff said they still are working on it and she’s heard there are many still not identified.

“The magnitude of the death, the work, the bodies was more than anyone was trained for,” she said.

She said that in the business they don’t refer to identifying victims as “finding closure” for families, but rather giving families “information” because, for some people, its painful to get the information and for others it helped in the healing process.

Mundorff said she and the team had to “keep up emotional barriers.”

“I always get emotional with the enormity of our efforts — still do,” Mundorff said. “And I’m glad I do, it reminds me that I’m human and still have feelings. I’m not numb to the world — yet.”

She said whenever one of the two to six people working a table needed a break, they would take one “until everyone was OK to go back to work.”

“Often this was because one of the members of service at my table (NYPD, PAPD), knew the victim and had to step away,” she said. “We supported each other and never pushed anyone to work when they clearly needed space.”

Mundorff doesn’t consider herself a “hero,” as many others do.

Amy Zelson Mundorff accepts an award from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2002 for her heroic work in helping to identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Amy Zelson Mundorff accepts an award from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2002 for her heroic work in helping to identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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“No one of us did more or less,” Mundorff said. “We came together and worked together. That office I worked in was really amazing.”

When hired at the ME’s office, Mundorff said she thought she would have the job the rest of her life, but her husband told her three years into the post-9/11 work that although she had “healed a lot,” he thought she would get even better out of New York City.

From left, Sarah Mundorff, Amy Mundorff and Kurt Mundorff on a trip to New York City.

From left, Sarah Mundorff, Amy Mundorff and Kurt Mundorff on a trip to New York City.

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“I thought I would work on cases there forever,” Mundorff said. “I left because I needed to get out of the city. I needed a break from the work. I was mostly doing 9/11 work, I wasn’t really getting back to case work”

Mundorff decided to go back to school and get a doctorate in forensic anthropology — she already had a master’s degree — with a concentration on managing mass casualties with highly fragmented human remains.

She used that experience of 9/11 as her data collection and is now an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, a job Mundorff said she “loves,” as well as her colleagues, students and research.

Mundorff is the daughter of pediatrician Dr. Joseph Zelson and Myra Zelson, who now live in Branford. Mundorff graduated from Amity Regional High School in 1987, noting she “had a lot of fun” and wasn’t a serious student.

Amy Zelson Mundorff with President George H.W. Bush when Mundorff was called to Thailand to help identify the remains of Tsunami victims.

Amy Zelson Mundorff with President George H.W. Bush when Mundorff was called to Thailand to help identify the remains of Tsunami victims.

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Joseph Zelson said his daughter is humbled by all the praise and modest about her accomplishments.

“Whatever she does, she does well,” Zelson said. “She was very determined in what she had to do and she respected everyone equally. It was a tough time for her.”

Mundorff said she doesn’t like doing interviews, although she has through the years been featured in newspapers, on many heroes of 9/11 news show segments, including on CNN.

She’s also received numerous awards for her work, including from alma matter Amity High School and being named by former NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a “Community Hero of 9/11.”

She recently agreed to interview for a major network special on female heroes of 9/11 because she thought it would be nice for her daughter, Sarah, 14.

It was Sarah who gave her the goat cuddling experience gift certificate for Mother’s Day, but Mundorff was recovering from surgery and couldn’t go right away.

“I think that after 9/11 Americans really came together and their was a lot of love and kindness across the aisle,” she said. “But that’s gone and that’s unfortunate. It would be nice if we could remember that.”