C.B. 1 sides with 9/11 families on remains search

By Skye H. McFarlane

After three months of heated debates, Community Board 1 finally took a position on the city’s renewed search for human remains in and around the World Trade Center site.

To the visible chagrin of Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler, the board voted Jan. 16 to support the involvement of the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in the remains recovery effort. The vote, though unlikely to alter city policy, drew applause from a small but devoted group of 9/11 family members, some of whom attended all four of the board’s marathon discussions on the matter.

“This is a yay or nay, a vote of confidence on the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations and their handling of the search for human remains,” Norm Siegel, a civil rights attorney who works with some of the family members, said prior to the board’s vote. “C.B. 1 should vote for the truth.”

The resolution, which passed 23 to 11 with five abstentions, also called upon the city to make its search protocols available to the public, mitigate the noise of any nighttime searches and make every effort not to interrupt construction on the W.T.C. site.

According to Skyler and Dr. Brad Adams, a JPAC veteran who is now the city’s chief forensic anthropologist, the board’s concerns about nighttime searches and W.T.C. construction have already been addressed. Because of visibility issues, Adams said, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has decided to conduct the search during daylight hours. Skyler added that W.T.C. construction crews have been willing to work around the city’s search teams.

The ongoing search, which is expected to last a year and cost around $30 million, includes excavations of the so-called haul road along the western edge of the W.T.C. site and the site of the former Greek Orthodox church at 140 Liberty St.; building searches at 130 Liberty St., 130 Cedar St and Fiterman Hall; rooftop searches at the Millenium Hotel and One Liberty Plaza; and searches of pre-9/11 manholes and other substructures in the area.

On site, under the supervision of archaeologists, 9/11-related materials are removed. The materials are then transferred to a special laboratory at 11 Water St. in Brooklyn, where they are hand-sifted by trained archaeologists or anthropologists. The Medical Examiner’s office has 11 such experts on staff and plans to hire 11 more, including two more forensic anthropologists.

In their presentation to the board, the city representatives cited this expertise as the primary reason why the city will continue to conduct its search without outside assistance. Board members who supported the city’s position went even further, asserting that federal involvement in the search could lead to miscommunications and turf wars.

“I think too many cooks will spoil the stew here,” said board member Jeff Galloway.

When asked directly about involving JPAC — which uses teams of linguists, explosives experts and forensic anthropologists to search for the remains of U.S. soldiers in former war zones like Vietnam — Skyler insisted that the military agency wasn’t available even if the city wanted its help.

“My understanding from the JPAC command is that they don’t have the resources to help us right now,” Skyler said.

While few board or family members questioned the expertise of the city team, many of them questioned the administration’s integrity. Some board members argued for JPAC involvement on the grounds that it couldn’t hurt the process and it might give some peace of mind to the family members of the more than 1,000 victims whose remains have never been found.

Others cited the city’s previous search, as well as the government’s seeming unwillingness to supply written search protocols or answer family members’ questions, as evidence that the search process should be monitored by an outside agency.

“I’m concerned that there’s no one in your office communicating with [the family members],” C.B. 1 member Marc Ameruso told Skyler. “The search on two occasions was declared finished and I think JPAC would be a second set of eyes, an independent observer that would not be wrapped up in politics.”

Some community members questioned whether the board should take a position on the topic at all. Others wondered why the city was trying so hard to win over the community if it did not plan to follow the board’s recommendation.

“Why are you here?” asked C.B. 1 member Julie Nadel. “Why does the mayor care what the community board thinks?”

Looking hurt, Skyler said he was amazed that Nadel would ask such a question.

“In government, I think you have an obligation to meet with the community and answer their questions,” Skyler said, pledging that he would come to any meeting that the board wants him at. “I’m going to keep coming until you throw tomatoes at me.”

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