WASHINGTON – Partial remains of several 9/11 victims were incinerated by a military contractor and sent to a landfill, a government report said Tuesday in the latest of a series of revelations about the Pentagon's main mortuary for the war dead.
The surprise disclosure was mentioned only briefly, with little detail, in a report by an independent panel that studied underlying management flaws at Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Delaware. A 2011 probe found "gross mismanagement" there, but until Tuesday there had been no mention of Dover's role in handling 9/11 victims' remains.
Air Force leaders, asked about the 9/11 matter at a news conference, said they had been unaware of it until the head of the independent panel, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, held a Pentagon news conference Tuesday to explain his panel's findings.
"This is new information to me," Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said.
He said it was unclear whether the matter would be investigated further.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said Panetta "never would have supported" the disposal of remains in a landfill. "He understands why families would have serious concerns about such a policy."
Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of the plane that was driven into the Pentagon by terrorist hijackers, said she was confused by the report. She said she attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at which unidentified 9/11 remains were buried in an engraved casket.
"They were treated with great respect and great ceremony," Burlingame said. "The Department of Defense was exceedingly sensitive and treated those unidentified remains with great respect. ... I would want to know more."
The Abizaid report primarily focused on management reforms to a "dysfunctional, isolated" Dover mortuary chain of command. It cited the 9/11 matter while explaining the history of problems at Dover that came to light last year through complaints from whistle-blowers who revealed the mishandling of war remains.
The practice at Dover of cremating partial remains and sending them to a landfill began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the report said, "when several portions of remains from the Pentagon attack and the Shanksville, Pa., crash site could not be tested or identified."
The terrorist-hijacked airliner that slammed into the west side of the Pentagon killed 184 people, and the plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville killed 40.
The Abizaid report said that in line with Dover's policy, "cremated portions were then placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal" company under Air Force contract. "Per the biomedical waste contract at that time, the contractor then transported these containers and incinerated them."
The report said Dover authorities assumed that after incineration "nothing remained."
But a Dover management "query" found that "there was some residual material following incineration and that the contractor was disposing of it in a landfill." It added that use of the landfill was not disclosed in the waste disposal contract.
"We don't think it should have happened," Abizaid told reporters.
It was unclear whether families of the 9/11 victims were aware remains had gone to contractors and then to the landfill. In the case of the war dead, officials previously said the remains were given to contractors for disposal only in cases in which remains could not be identified or in which families had already buried their loved ones and had informed the military that they did not want to be told if additional remains were later found.
Such a development was not uncommon as the wars wore on in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombs were the main insurgent weapon.
In the case of 9/11 victims, some remains from the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the anniversary of the attacks. Three caskets of unidentified remains from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville were buried there last September.
In Pennsylvania, Somerset County coroner Wallace Miller said in an interview Tuesday that he was surprised that remains from Flight 93 might be involved in the new Pentagon report. "I wouldn't know how there would be any possibility how any remains would get to Dover," Miller said.
He said the only remains he knows of that would not be in Pennsylvania are those of four of the hijackers that are being held by the FBI for potential military tribunals.
A lawmaker who has closely followed the Dover scandal, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said the Pentagon has yet to fully explain the practice of disposing of partial remains in landfills.
"The Pentagon must provide absolute clarity and accountability as to what human remains were dishonored in this manner, and it must take far more aggressive steps to ensure this never happens again," Holt said.
Holt also revealed that he had written to Panetta on Feb. 6 asking for a fuller explanation of the history of remains disposal by Dover.
In the letter, Holt asked, "Regarding the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, can the Air Force confirm that no 9/11 victim's remains were incinerated, mixed with medical waste and sent to a landfill?"
Holt also said he received correspondence in November from the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Jo Ann Rooney, stating that remains of the five hijackers responsible for the Pentagon attack were identified by Dover using DNA samples.
"How were the remains of the hijackers handled?" Holt asked Panetta.
More than 9,000 human remains recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City remain unidentified because they are too degraded to match victims by DNA identification. The remains are stored at the city medical examiner's office and are to be transferred to a subterranean chamber at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, once set for opening this year but now delayed.
Diane Horning, who lost her son, Matthew, at the World Trade Center, said she was shocked by Tuesday's revelations.
"We need a protocol to be put in place so that we know this can never happen again," Horning said. She added, "Not only am I broken-hearted but I am outraged."
The disposal of more than 1.6 million tons of debris from the destroyed World Trade Center at a Staten Island landfill led to a yearslong lawsuit alleging that remains were left at the landfill. Roughly 20,000 human remains of the nearly 2,800 victims were found in trade center debris, most of which went to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, in the year after the 2001 attacks.
Family members claimed some of their loved ones' ashes and remains were at the landfill but never found, and sued the city to try to force it to bury the material separately. The lawsuit was dismissed, and unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Air Force on Tuesday laid out steps it is taking to resolve the problems at the Dover. But there continue to be several unresolved issues.
In a statement, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said officials will release a report in mid-March on the retaliation taken against the workers who initially reported the mortuary problems.
The Special Counsel said settlements with the workers will be finalized shortly and will include efforts to correct their records and "make the whistle-blowers whole." Officials are also considering whether to take more severe disciplinary actions against supervisors who took part in whistle-blower retaliation.
Last year the Air Force disciplined, but did not fire, three senior supervisors for their role in the mishandling of remains. Officials are revisiting that issue because of the retaliation taken against the whistle-blowers.