It was the details of the tragedy that prompted Milton dentist Dr. David B. Harte to take action.
More than 230 people were killed when TWA Flight 800 went down in the Atlantic Ocean near New York City in July, 1996.
As he continued to follow the investigation, Harte learned that it literally took over a year to identify all those aboard.
“That’s when I decided to do something about it,” he said.
This case hit home in particular since those onboard included a group of students and adult chaperones who were heading to France for a cultural exchange trip.
Harte’s own two daughters, French immersion students at Glover Elementary School, were contemplating going on a similar trip.
“We needed a quicker way,” he said in a recent visit to his practice on 480 Adams St. in East Milton. “When that flight went down, my heart just went out to them.”
Thinking within and beyond his expertise as a dentist and a forensic dentist, Harte worked with others to develop that quicker way.
He is the founder and national spokesperson for the Comprehensive Masonic Child Identification Program (CHIP).
The program provides parents with a free identification kit they can share with law enforcement if their child ever goes missing or is lost in a tragedy.
The program has been implemented in 52 school districts in the United States and Canada.
“We just passed our three millionth child,” Harte said.
The Milton Public Schools was the first school district to participate, and Rotary Club members and other volunteers assisted in collecting the kits in 2000 and 2001.
“This is very fulfilling,” Harte said. “Saving people’s lives all over North America is very fulfilling.”
The Yankee Dental Congress, which draws about 27,000 dental professionals at its yearly meeting, recently named Harte as the group’s Clinician of the Year.
He speaks internationally on the subject of child identification and has published numerous works about dentistry and its connection to lost and missing children.
At age 65, Harte will receive his 40-year pin from the American Dental Association this year.
He worked with the Masons of Massachusetts and partnered with the Massachusetts Crime Prevention Officers Association and the Massachusetts Dental Society to donate resources to make this service available to the public. None of the information is copied and all of the identifying materials are given to the child's family.
During events such as Milton’s National Night Out, dentists and volunteers collect the following identification information: a videotape of the child, fingerprints, a cheek swab, and tooth prints. The prints are 3D images of the child’s teeth formed by biting on a small disc. The prints also collect a child’s unique scent.
The videotapes have been used in thousands of Amber Alert cases and the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children “loves our program,” Harte said.
The National Center reported that 424,066 children were reported missing in the United States in 2018, according to its website.
“For a long time, it was easier to recover your stolen vehicle than it was to find a missing child,” Harte said..
When tracked by police dogs with special scent discrimination training, a child’s scent on a tooth print can still be followed after many years.
Traditional dental records are often used to confirm identities of people who have died, and Harte explained that a single 3D tooth print from a six-year-old molar is “absolutely unique” and “more definitive than a fingerprint” in identification.
Along with the kit, children are given safety education tips. If a child is abducted, they should lick their fingers and deliberately put their fingerprints on a surface.
Harte knows of a case several years ago in which a nine-year-old girl was abducted and putting her wet fingerprints everywhere she could on the inside of her abductor’s vehicle. When he asked what she was doing, she replied that whatever he was thinking of doing to her, he might want to know that her fingerprints and DNA were now all over his vehicle.
The first National Night Out in Milton that Harte Dental participated in took place on Aug. 12, 1998.
This year, on the program’s 20th anniversary, the program started collecting toothprints for adults as well.
Although Harte continues to see patients at his practice, his daughter, Dr. Kimberly Harte, now provides the bulk of patient care along with Dr. Lily Liu. The practice employs about 20 people.
Harte said the need for adult tooth prints became real in the wake of the grim reality of the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks.
The remains of thousands of those who died have not yet been officially identified since the high temperatures obliterated DNA, he said.
While his typical patients know him as a caring and competent practitioner, Harte has always had an interest in forensic dentistry, which, he said, is a lesser-known but common part of the profession.
“Forensics is the search for truth,” Harte said. “It’s not morbid or gross. It’s just trying to figure out the facts.”
Harte has always been fascinated by science and cutting-edge technology.
Harte, who graduated from the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, is a Fellow of the Academy of Dentistry International, the American College of Dentists, the international College of Dentists, and the Pierre Fauchard Academy, where he received the Dentist of the Year award in 2002. He is also an associate member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Harte and his wife Barbara (Price) Harte are both fourth generation Miltonians. They have three grown children.