NEW YORK – An emotionally laden debate over the future resting place of thousands of unidentified remains of Sept. 11 victims is lingering as the attacks' 10th anniversary recedes, with several relatives saying they aren't satisfied with a recent city effort to spread the word about a plan to house the remains in the forthcoming 9/11 museum.
Under pressure from families who oppose the plan, the city outlined it in a letter sent last week to relatives of all the nearly 2,800 people killed at the World Trade Center. The letter came after 17 relatives sued the city to try to get addresses so they could poll the families themselves.
A judge rejected their request last week, but the city — which has maintained that the plans have long been known and families approved them — sent out the letters in hopes of resolving the matter.
"We know how profoundly significant and sensitive this matter is to victims' families," notes the letter from Dr. Charles Hirsch, the city's chief medical examiner, and Joe Daniels, the president of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, which counts some victims' relatives as board members.
At the other sites where hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, the placement of unidentified remains has been resolved. Those from the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the first anniversary of the attacks. Three caskets of unidentified remains from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pa., were buried there this September.
To the trade center victims' relatives who sued, the letter doesn't settle their dispute, which reflects years of strife over the search for and handling of victims' remains.
Remains have never been identified for more than 1,100 people killed at the site. With the subterranean museum still under construction, about 9,000 pieces of unidentified remains are now in a weatherproof tent along the East River in Manhattan, near the medical examiners' office.
The current plan calls for moving them in 2013 to a private repository in the museum, according to the letter. The repository would be off limits to the public, behind a wall inscribed with a quote from the Roman poet Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."
There would be a private viewing area for families, who wouldn't be charged the museum's potential $20 admission fee and would be allowed to visit after hours, the letter notes.
Regardless, the objecting families feel a museum is no place for their loved ones' remains. They bristle at the prospect of passing a gift shop and tourists on their way to pay respects 70 feet underground. They want the remains to be put in a separate space on the memorial plaza that opened this Sept. 11, seeing that as a more respectful treatment.
"I think that would bring some more reverence to it," says Jim Riches, a retired firefighter who lost his firefighter son Jimmy in the attack.
Riches and others who sued want to survey the full roster of trade center victims' families to gauge opinion — something the city's letter doesn't invite.
"The fact that a letter went out is positive, but it's not adequate because it ignores the most important part, from the (families') perspective, which is the input," said their lawyer, Norman Siegel. His clients are considering appealing the court's denial of their bid for access to the city's full list of 9/11 families' names and addresses, he said.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern said in an Oct. 25 ruling that turning over the list would invade the other families' privacy and that the city's letter "clearly and explicitly informs" them.
The families had said any privacy concerns could be allayed by giving the list only to a retired judge who could send out a survey to the 2,752 trade center victims' next of kin. But the city argued that state public-records law would require releasing the list publicly if it were released at all, and that would subject families to unwelcome solicitations.
City lawyer Thaddeus Hackworth said officials were glad the court agreed that releasing the list would compromise the families' privacy.
"The mailing sent by the 9/11 Memorial and the Office of Chief Medical Examiner added to the abundance of information that families already had received regarding the plans," he added in a statement Tuesday.
Memorial officials had no immediate reaction.
Identifying, finding and determining a resting place for remains has been a fraught issue for some victims' families since the 2001 attacks.
After Hirsch stopped trying to make identifications in 2005, saying the effort had reached the limits of DNA technology, the discovery of human remains on a bank tower roof and in a manhole near ground zero a year later outraged families who said the search for their loved ones had been rushed initially. The findings prompted a renewed search that cost the city tens of millions of dollars and uncovered 1,500 pieces of remains.
Meanwhile, some victims' relatives sued the city over its decision to move 1.6 million tons of materials from the trade center site to a landfill, saying the material might contain victims' ashes and should have been given a proper burial. The city said it had searched the material diligently for remains, which the families' disputed. Federal judges sided with the city, and the case came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it last year.
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