Will the city do a better search for remains this time?

By Charles Wolf

As I unlocked my apartment door, groceries in hand, the phone rang. It was NY1. “What do you know about the remains discovered by Consolidated Edison workers at 29th St.?” I asked her to repeat the question. She said that they had discovered human remains from the World Trade Center at 29th St. My brain was racing. “How, how could they be finding remains at 29th St. on the West Side,” I kept asking myself. It was just now 6 p.m. I switched the television on to catch the beginning of “Eyewitness News” on Channel 7. It was there I learned that the remains were found within the debris removed from a manhole at ground zero, but not discovered until Con Ed’s giant vacuum truck was emptied on 29th St.

It was at that point that I went from one disbelief to another. “Ground zero?” I thought. Officials told us that it was totally clean. Nine-eleven family members (the “families”) expected to find remains in some of the buildings as we knew that the former Deutsche Bank was not thoroughly searched for human remains, and they had not searched Fiterman Hall at all. However, ground zero itself, was another matter. Diane Horning, founder of WTC Families for Proper Burial and Sally Regenhard, co-founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign had been saying all along that they had not properly searched the buildings. Yet all of us were shocked to hear of human remains along with personal effects like wallets and purses being found at ground zero. Of the 2,749 people killed in the towers, 42% of us (1,151) did not receive any remains of our loved ones, myself included. To hear of more remains being found brings up all sorts of thoughts in family members’ minds.

Thus began nine intense days for Diane, Sally and me, each of us separately responding to one request after another from the press and the media for interviews on the topic. An immediate offer of assistance by Councilmember Alan Gerson led him to write a letter of support to Mayor Bloomberg. By last Friday, Oct. 27, the three of us were doing joint press conferences.

Apart from three emails in the first three days, the Bloomberg administration was not talking to us – and more to the point, they were not listening either. For eight days, we were communicating through the press. The mayor would say something, the press would ask us about it, we would respond and they would go back and ask the mayor about it. Our message was not getting through accurately, and we were frustrated and angry. These were our loved ones’ remains – their bones, if you will – and no one from the administration approached any of us with explanations or answers to our questions about what the city was doing.

Things came to a head last Friday. Only through a well-placed professional friend of the families did we finally get a 10 a.m. meeting with the deputy mayor for administration, Ed Skyler, to whom Mayor Michael Bloomberg had delegated this issue. Meanwhile, a report, and recommendations to the mayor on additional searches for human remains had already been in the works by the city Department of Design and Construction and the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center. They scheduled this to be released Friday afternoon.

Sally, Diane and I met with Skyler, the chief medical examiner and other city officials about our requests, which were quite simple:

First, we want construction to continue, unless warranted to temporarily stop for the search of remains in a particular area. We want the search for remains to become proactive rather than reactive, which is the current situation – the city is reacting to the finding of remains by Con Ed. Rather than wait until they deconstruct the Deutsche Bank building or Fiterman Hall, the search for remains should commence now. Actions speak louder than words, and waiting says the search for human remains takes second place to rebuilding.

We want the city to augment their own capable people in the Medical Examiner’s office with people from the Pentagon’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) unit. It is a huge job and Skyler said it could take over a year. Additional anthropologists would help things move faster.

But more important, we feel that JPAC can be the biggest help in the areas of organization, management, and the methodologies of the search. If the same people who were previously in charge of the search are again in charge, the search will likely be subject to the same failures as before. These are not failures of competency, but failures of imagination, of thinking, of one’s mindset. If the paradigms that led to the current failure are used again, they are very likely to fail again. Bringing in the JPAC people to take a fresh look at things will stimulate thinking. We are not asking for the city to step aside; we are saying our own people will benefit from new ideas, and together with the existing knowledge, make the search more thorough.

While the memorial and memorial museum is in the capable hands of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, the subject nobody wants to talk about is the human remains, and very probably remains, in a landfill garbage dump in Staten Island called Fresh Kills. The remains of the 2,749 people in the Twin Towers were turned to ash and mixed with pulverized building materials by the incredible force of the collapse of the towers. They hauled this ash off to Fresh Kills landfill garbage dump on barges, and now it lays on top of household garbage.

Chest-high gullies, formed by hard rains, now allow the remains of humans and building material alike to wash into the Arthur Kill waterway. On a recent visit, I found doorknobs, the lettering from someone’s office door, and someone’s boot. Walking through the W.T.C. area of Fresh Kills landfill garbage dump had the same feeling as in a cemetery. It was unmistakable

All we are asking the city is to move this mass of human-laced debris off the household garbage, and to a clean location, even within Fresh Kills itself.

At the meeting on Friday, Deputy Mayor Skyler told us that Mayor Bloomberg said, whatever the cost and regardless of how much time it took, they will continue looking for remains. We now wait for the deeds to catch up with the words.

History judges civilizations partly by how they honor their dead. The dead from the Sept. 11 attacks on New York are still scattered around the city – scattered as far as the borough of Staten Island. We will continue to wait for the deeds to match the words, but we will not wait in silence.

Charles Wolf is a member of the Family Advisory Council to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. His wife, Katherine Wolf, worked in the World Trade Center and was killed Sept. 11, 2001.