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Charles Hirsch of Park Ridge, Chief 9/11 Medical Examiner, Dies

Charles S. Hirsch
Charles S. Hirsch Photo Credit: COURTESY: City of New York

PARK RIDGE, N.J. -- Park Ridge's Charles S. Hirsch, hailed by some as "the last great untold story of 9/11," died Thursday in Westwood, a result of complications of several illnesses, New York City authorities said.

Hirsch, who turned 79 a little over a week ago, was credited with building the finest public forensic DNA crime lab in the country during his time as the city's chief medical examiner.

A famed account told of how Hirsch rushed to the Twin Towers on 9/11, then returned to the morgue across town in Kips Bay after breaking his ribs to dedicate himself to identifying the 2,753 victims. In doing so, helped countless families through their grief.

"In spite of the injuries he himself suffered at Ground Zero, and in the face of unspeakable pressures from almost every quarter, he redefined forensic medicine -- blazing new trails in DNA identification and making the OCME a beacon of comfort for so many grieving families," Howard Price of ABC News wrote.

"I had the distinct privilege of speaking with Dr. Hirsch in the months after 9/11, imploring him to let me tell his story on TV," Price added. "[H]e always responded to each of my interview requests the same way, firmly yet politely: 'I'll leave it to the scientific journals to tell our story.'

"He shunned the spotlight, and focused on his mission [a]nd always shifted praise from himself to the many colleagues who labored in the labs to put a name to the remains."

Reports quoted Hirsch saying he aimed to identify 70%. The figure nearly reached 60% when he retired.

Hirsch's highest-profile cases included identifying 87 victims of a Bronx social club fire and 265 in a jetliner crash in Queens, both in 1990.

Two years ago, authorities named a new state-of-the-art DNA lab on East 26th Street the Charles S. Hirsch Center for Forensic Sciences in his honor upon his retirement.

Born in Chicago, Charles Sydney Hirsch was graduated in 1962 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and went on to do his residency at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

After completing his fellowships in Neuropathology and Forensic Pathology in Baltimore, Maryland, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps. He was based in Germany, where he met his future wife, Marie-Claude Fenart of France, a civilian working for an Air Force dentist.

They were married in October 1969. She died in January, 2010.

Hirsch worked as a deputy coronor in Cuyhaoga County, Ohio, and, later, as director of forensic pathology for Hamilton County, Ohio.

He moved to Long Island in 1985 and became Suffolk County's chief medical examiner.

Three years later, Mayor Edward Koch appointed him chief medical examiner for the city -- a position he held for 25 years. He was also the chairman of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Professor of Pathology at NYU Medical School during that time.

Hirsch received various honors and awards, was the commencement speaker at his alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, in 2003 and participated in many medical societies and organizations.

He was a member of American Board of Pathology for 12 years, serving at one point as president and being elected a life trustee.

In retirement, loved ones said, he read newspapers, listened to classical music, spent time with his daughter and drove his grandchildren wherever they needed to go.

He always loved dogs, they said, and was particularly fond of his Wheaton Terrier, Zoe, whom loved ones said he adored for 15 years.

Hirsch leaves his daughter, Sophie Ghiraldini, and grandchildren Griffin and Spencer. Besides his wife, he was predeceased by his brother, Ira Hirsch.

Visitation was scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday at the Robert Spearing Funeral Home, Inc. , 155 Kinderkamack Road, Park Ridge, followed by private interment in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus.

In lieu of flowers, family members said a contribution to Angels for Animals Network -- a local no-kill animal rescue group -- would be appreciated.

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