New report, final location rekindles debate

BY Aline Reynolds

Sally Regenhard is still reeling over the loss of her 28-year-old son, Christian Regenhard, a New York City firefighter who passed away on 9/11. His remains have yet to be discovered, leaving her feeling violated and all the more heartbroken.

“If a human being is murdered, you certainly have the right to have the remains of your loved ones be found, and to have a proper burial for them,” she said.

Shortly after 9/11, Regenhard took part in New York City’s painstaking quest to find her son’s remains. The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner staged a Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in midtown, where Regenhard and thousands of other 9/11 families brought hair clippers and toothbrushes in order to provide DNA samples. The items were later brought to the O.C.M.E. labs, where they were matched against the human remains uncovered at and around Ground Zero.

At the end of December, the O.C.M.E. is coming out with a third report documenting its latest discoveries. The report reveals that the O.C.M.E. has uncovered 68 additional bone, teeth and skin fragments in the third round of searches, which took place earlier this year, bringing the total count of recovered remains to close to 22,000.

An O.C.M.E. official continues to monitor areas under excavation at the World Trade Center site, searching for additional remains. Debris possibly containing remains is collected, placed into barrels and hauled to mobile sifting platforms, machines that filter the debris located in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

When the examiners successfully match remains with a hair or skin sampling from a family member, the O.C.M.E. notifies the loved one.

“They’ll typically send a funeral director to come and collect it,” said Ellen Borakove, director of public affairs at the O.C.M.E.

But there are still many unanswered questions. According to the latest O.C.M.E. data report, 41 percent of the 21,812 remains detected at and around Ground Zero since 9/11 have not been identified. Current DNA testing techniques are not advanced enough, according to the O.C.M.E., for the examiners to create complete profiles of the victims. “As new technology becomes available, we want to go back to the remains and test them,” said Borakove.

Borakove indicated that, though the O.C.M.E. isn’t pressuring family members to provide samples for the DNA tests, the O.C.M.E. would be unable to make identifications without them. The examiners have recently come up with 27 separate profiles of victims, for example, and without family members’ participation, the victims’ identities will amount only to a case number.

“Not everyone chooses to give us samples,” Borakove said. “Some choose to say, their loved one is gone.”

Regenhard launched the Skyscraper Safety Campaign in December 2001, requesting that the federal government participate in the search and identification of the remains. According to the S.S.C., the O.C.M.E. is not fit for a search of this magnitude.

“How can a relatively small organization [the O.C.M.E.] be competent enough to administer a search in this manner? It is a disgrace,” Regenhard said.

The organization will launch its campaign again in early 2011 to call upon the participation of the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command for assistance in the next phases of the remains project.

“I’d call for the City of New York, after nearly ten years of failure, to use the largest DNA lab in the world [J.P.A.C.] and to have them come in and try to help identify remains that are still here,” Regenard said.

The location of the remains at the future W.T.C. site stirs up yet another debate. According to Lynn Rasic, senior vice president of public affairs and communications at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the remains will be stored in a space “connected” to the 9/11 Museum “at bedrock,” per 9/11 families’ requests. She emphasized that the area will not be a part of the museum’s public exhibition space, though it is located next to the museum and is accessible through the museum.

“From the O.C.M.E.’s perspective, this new repository will provide a dignified and reverential setting for the remains to repose—temporarily or in perpetuity—as identifications continue to be made,” according to a written statement on the 9/11 museum’s website. The on-site laboratory will be connected to a private seating and viewing area for family members to contemplate and reflect on their loved ones.

But Regenhard and other 9/11 families do not feel that this is a suitable mourning place. Attaching the space to the museum, a public exhibition space, is a betrayal of trust, she said, since the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation promised the families a stand-alone memorial at the future W.T.C.

“I shouldn’t have to go 70 feet below ground fighting thousands of people in order to try to pay respect for my son’s human remains,” Regenhard said.

The S.S.C. is researching the national guidelines of the preservation of human remains to see if the museum’s design plan complies with federal law.

The wall separating the O.C.M.E. space and the museum will have a commemorative plaque and a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid, which some families find equally offensive. “They don’t have to see the bones. The fact that the space is being pointed out to the visitors makes it an exhibit,” said Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College and a member of the S.S.C.

In the meantime, Regenhard and other 9/11 families will not be at peace until their loved ones’ remains are found and examined in what they consider to be a respectful space at the W.T.C. “All this feels like a knife in the heart,” she said. “The emotions are raw, and the feelings are wounded over and over again.”