Search for 9/11 Remains to Resume in New York
2010-04-05 0:00

By Dana Chivvis |

New York City will take up its search for the remains of 9/11 victims again Monday by sifting through debris from the World Trade Center site in the hopes of releasing families from the emotional purgatory they have been in for the last nine years.

The material has been collected over the last two years from areas at ground zero that were previously inaccessible after the 2001 attack. But the city has been keeping the debris in a landfill in Staten Island, angering many families of the victims.

New York City will take up its search for the remains of 9/11 victims again Monday by sifting through debris from the World Trade Center site. Here, an excavator sifts through 9/11 rubble at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in 2002. Shawn Baldwin, AP

"What we’re objecting to is they put them on the most recently used garbage dump," said Diane Horning, whose 26-year-old son, Matthew, was killed in the attacks. "They literally threw them in the dump."

Horning co-founded WTC Families For A Proper Burial along with her husband, Kurt. In 2005, they and 16 other families sued the city to have one million tons of debris moved off the landfill. Horning has suggested the city bury the material at an empty spot on the landfill, on nearby Governor’s Island in the New York Harbor, or at the Flight 93 memorial site in Shanksville, Pa. The families lost their initial case and their appeal, which they argued in December.

At the appellate hearing, James Tyrrell Jr., a lawyer for the city, argued that taxpayer money could not be used to move the pile.

"Digging up the landfill simply because somebody’s loved ones might be there -- that’s not a sufficient reason," Tyrrell said.

Horning hopes the upcoming sifting project will provide resolution for some families. The few remains she has of her son, which include his wallet, give her a connection to something that he once touched.

"When you get a fragment of your loved one, it’s a punch in the stomach telling you he was blown apart," Horning said. [Editor’s emphasis]

"Of those of us who have something, they’re very small fragments."

The sifting process beginning Monday will cost an estimated $1.4 million and will take three months. During that time, anthropologists and other professionals will hand-sift through 844 cubic yards of debris.

New York City has identified 25 new 9/11 victims since 2006. Work done up to December 2007 recovered 1,772 potential human remains, according to city records. But 41 percent of the families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks have yet to recover anything.

Sally Regenhard, an activist and co-founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, lost her 28-year-old son, Christian, a firefighter. To this day, she has not recovered any of his remains.

"I have no evidence that my son died. I never got the knock at the door," Regenhard said. "I have never been told where my son died, what building he was sent to, what he was doing."

She likens the feeling to those of the families of Argentina’s thousands of desaparecidos, taken by the Argentine government during the country’s Dirty War in the 1970s and whose whereabouts and fates often were never revealed.

"It would make what happened to us real because there is a gross and bizarre sense of unreality," Regenhard said. She believes the city has failed to search for and identify victims’ remains properly.

"A lot of the remains in the first several weeks ended up being picked up as debris -- as garbage -- along with everything else," said Glenn Corbett, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the chief technical adviser to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. "There really was no concerted effort to recover remains in a systematic way."

In 2006, New York Sen. Charles Schumer and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton asked both Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to request the help of the military’s Joint POW/MIA Command, an elite unit that identifies and accounts for Americans missing because of conflicts.

But the city said it didn’t need the help. At a community meeting in 2006, Dr. Bradley Adams, a forensic anthropologist with the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, said the city had hired more anthropologists than a team from JPAC would have provided.

When acquaintances of her son come to New York, they often ask Regenhard if they can visit his grave. She has to explain to them that he doesn’t have one.

"For myself and for so many people, we’ve never had a burial, we’ve never had a funeral," Regenhard said. "Often a gravestone is the only evidence that a person lived and a person died."

Instead, much of the evidence of the lives of World Trade Center victims is spread into thousands of tiny pieces, piled up in a landfill or buried under the streets of lower Manhattan.

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