NEW YORK – The workers who spent months searching for the remains of the dead in the World Trade Center rubble were often at odds with the agency overseeing the cleanup and frequently asked to halt the operation as they gingerly recovered body parts.
As the work was wrapping up in 2002, several officials handling the recovery warned that things were moving too fast. They believed more pieces of the lost 2,749 victims could be found, but they were overruled, two of those officials told The Associated Press this week.
The officials gave the account after a utility crew accidentally discovered body parts last week in an abandoned manhole along the western edge of the site, and forensic experts have since dug down and found more than 100 bones and fragments from skulls, ribs, arms, legs, feet and hands.
"I knew that this was going to happen — they really just wanted us out of there," said retired Police Lt. John McArdle, the New York Police Department's ground zero commander. "There was not a good exit strategy for some of these places, and if there was, it was poorly done."
The project finished months ahead of city officials' yearlong prediction, and cost about $750 million — just a fraction of the initial multibillion-dollar estimate.
The medical examiner's office said no new remains were found Monday, but recovery was expected to continue Tuesday and last through the week.
The area where remains were found is one where officials raised objections.
The officials said they repeatedly aired their concerns to the agency in charge, the Department of Design and Construction, which was later praised for the cleanup of 1.5 million tons of trade center debris.
"The desire was driven by one thing, and that was, 'Get it done,'" said another official who protested, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly discuss the work. "Many a time the issue was raised about how fast it was going and things were being missed."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged Monday that "there was a lot of pressure to do things quickly," but said workers "did everything they thought was appropriate at the time, as much as they could. It was just a massive task where things are spread out for a very large area, and the practical reality is you can't get to everything."
Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler, who is overseeing the new recovery effort, said a review of past procedures before the work is completed would be premature, but noted that the Fire Department was designated as the lead agency for finding remains.
He said the Department of Design and Construction only proceeded when the FDNY gave the go-ahead.
According to the two officials, FDNY rescue workers were among those who resisted the department, but Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said Monday that reports of objections were exaggerated. Chief of Department Sal Cassano said in a statement that the FDNY "had final sign-off on areas where the recovery effort was deemed complete, and at no time was pressured to say otherwise."
Memos obtained by the AP show that the DDC acknowledged at least some of the objections in the spring of 2002, but was concerned about "delaying the sign-off" as they were finishing the job.
All involved agencies have been asked to go back and recall how and when they inspected the buildings on the site's outskirts. Hundreds of bone fragments were recently found on the rooftop of a nearby skyscraper that had been closed since the attack.
None of the newly unearthed bones has been identified, but the medical examiner's office has DNA profiles of the victims on file and is working to match the remains. Thousands of the 20,000 pieces recovered during the main excavation still have not yielded matches, leaving more than 40 percent of victims without any trace of remains more than five years after the attack.
After the 110-story towers collapsed, police and fire officials led the backbreaking search for bodies while the DDC was assigned to excavate the debris, which stood 10 stories high at the start. The agency, staffed by engineers, architects and construction professionals, specializes in engineering and construction projects, including emergency debris removal.
Robert Gray, who oversaw heavy equipment operation as the trade center site's master mechanic, said construction workers also felt hurried by city officials to finish quickly.
"They tried to run it as a business. Maybe that's their job. We felt a moral responsibility to try and do it the right way," said Gray.
Kurt Horning, who lost his son Matthew in the attack, said he was glad to hear others saying what families believed for years.
"The foot soldiers did everything they could, we know that — we have always felt this was a rush job by the administration and the suits," he said.
Particular disagreements arose as the DDC was preparing to turn over the site — which belongs to the New York and New Jersey agency known as the Port Authority. According to people involved in the process, DDC had created a grid map and asked those leading the remains recovery to walk through each area and sign off.
Some refused to OK the sign-off, and at least one official recommended a widespread powerwashing on parts of the seven-story pit, so that the water could wash down into the nooks and crannies, catching the smallest pieces of remains. Workers would then spread out the sludge, let it dry, and comb for bone and tissue fragments.
According to a memo from DDC official Bruce Rottner, extra requests "would hamper the work of the ... transition team, potentially delaying the sign-off by two weeks."
Matthew Monahan, DDC spokesman, said the intent of that correspondence was not dealing with human remains specifically, but rather the agency's overall effort to clean up the site and eliminate safety hazards in preparation for turning it over the Port Authority.
A powerwash would not necessarily have reached the 12 subterranean cavities now being opened and sifted this week by teams of forensic anthropologists. But Skyler said there may be many more underground areas to examine.