Dr. Terry Massie has a habit of missing his wife’s birthday.

In the past few years, Massie, a forensic dentist, has been called to identify victims of Flight 427, which crashed near the Pittsburgh airport on Sept. 9, 1994, and United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field near Somerset on Sept. 11, 2001.

He also was called to identify the remains of students who had died in a cabin fire near State College in September 1998, and last year, he spent two weeks in Louisiana identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Each event caused him to be away from home for his wife’s Sept. 16 birthday.

“She asked me if I planned to miss it again this year too,” said Massie, who maintains a dentistry practice on Grant Street. “I told her I don’t make those decisions. That is in someone else’s hands.”

Although he enjoys putting together the puzzle of using dental records to identify victims of tragedies, Massie said he couldn’t wait to get home from the Big Easy last year.

“I don’t know if it was the intense heat, the humidity, what it was,” he said. “I got home and just wanted to stay.”

He said he politely declined requests for an encore appearance.

After two weeks on the job, Massie said, he left New Orleans the day before Hurricane Rita arrived on Sept. 21, 2005.

“I was on the last flight out of Baton Rouge (La.) before they closed the airport,” he said.

Although he did not especially enjoy it, Massie does not believe his time working on Hurricane Katrina victims was wasted.

“In the two weeks I was in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, we did 680 autopsies in 10 days,” he said.

In the five days following the Sept. 11, 2001, plane crash, he said, he participated in only three identifications. One was the pilot.

Massie credits improvements in technology.

“We were able to use a sophisticated computer program that matched physical characteristics,” he said.

Families provided as much information as possible — dental records, X-rays, photographs, descriptions of tattoos, clothing, jewelry, even blood types and DNA.

Forensic scientists — including pathologists, anthropologists and odontologists — examine recovered remains and postmortem information and the computer helps to match the information and the remains, he said.

“We didn’t have this in 2001.”

By the end of December, 1,200 had been identified, he said, and more have been identified since, most through DNA and photographs.

A year after Katrina, people have changed the way they look at hurricanes, Massie noted.

“Until then, hurricanes hit but people survived them,” he said.

“Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Rita last year, the mayor of Galveston, Texas, declared a mandatory evacuation of the city. She said, ‘If you don’t want to leave, be sure you put your Social Security number, in indelible ink, on your forearm so you can be identified later. People left.”

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