Partial remains from some people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 ended up in a landfill, according to a Pentagon-commissioned report released on Tuesday that revealed previously undisclosed blunders at the US military’s main mortuary.
The unidentified remains came from two of the three sites of the Sept. 11 attacks: the Pentagon and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash site of one of the hijacked airliners. The World Trade Center in New York City, which was leveled in the attacks, was not cited.
Retired Gen. John Abizaid, briefing Pentagon reporters on the findings of the independent review of practices at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, said it was unclear how many people’s partial remains were disposed of in this manner. I don’t know that there’s a way to find out,” Abizaid said.
The remains were classified in the report as ones which “could not be tested or identified,” leaving open the possibility that they could have come from victims and even hijackers.
The incident is certain to further undermine the reputation of the Dover mortuary after last year’s revelations that it mishandled the remains of war dead. This included losing body parts twice and allowing the partial remains of at least 274 troops to be dumped in a Virginia landfill. That policy was abandoned in 2008 and all partial remains are now buried at sea.
Dover, which is under the control of the Air Force, is the main entry port for returning war dead from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report suggested that the human remains from the Sept. 11 attacks were essentially treated like medical waste. The remains were cremated, placed in sealed containers and then given to a biomedical waste firm, which incinerated them. Although the report said the assumption among top brass at the time was that “nothing remained” after the cremation and incineration, officials later learned some residual material was left behind, the report said. That material was being dumped in a landfill.
The independent report’s claims about the remains of Sept. 11 dead appeared to take Air Force leaders by surprise as well as a group representing victims of the crashed United Airlines flight in Pennsylvania. “This is impossible to believe,” said Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for Families of Flight 93, who said the remains from the crash were under the control of the Somerset County coroner.
“Our understanding is that no remains were sent to Dover.” Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said they had not been aware of the incidents and were unable to provide more details.
Both asked for time to review the findings and tried to emphasize the path ahead, citing steps that would be taken to improve oversight at the Dover mortuary. “That’s really where we need to focus our time, in improving our current operations to make sure this kind of event does not occur again,” Donley said.
The report also disclosed other irregularities. One happened in 2006 when the mortuary accidentally treated the victims of a Navy T-39 Sabreliner jet crash as medical waste, as opposed to giving them a group burial. In January, 2008, the Air Force paid a $25,000 settlement to the widow of a Marine whose personal effects were cremated along with his remains. Abizaid acknowledged that investigations into irregularities at Dover had taken place in the past but had not been acted upon, due to a lack of oversight.