In a parking lot near the office of the chief medical examiner of New York City, 9,006 unidentified human remains recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center are stored inside temperature-controlled containers. Many are too small or too damaged for DNA analysis—the force of the towers’ collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, created a mishmash of genetic information “like a ball of knotted strings that cannot be unwound,” as anthropologist and 9/11 expert Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh wrote in the June issue of Anthropology Today.
Since the holding station, known as Memorial Park, was set up under a white tent in 2002, many relatives of the 2,753 people killed at Ground Zero have grieved in a makeshift chapel beside the storage units. Many of them have never received the bodies, or even body parts, of their loved ones. For these families, the anonymous bone and tissue fragments are the closest they can get to those they have lost. “I pray to God that he’s with them. I want him there,” says Monica Iken, whose husband, Michael, 37, died in the south tower where he worked as a bond trader. “That is so important to me. Whether he’s identified or not, he’s still in a sacred place.”
With the remains eliciting such personal and emotional attachment, where to put them permanently has ignited a dramatic debate between factions of 9/11 families, bureaucrats, anthropologists, architects and curators. The plan has long been to return them to Ground Zero and place them in a repository where the medical examiner can continue DNA analysis and relatives can visit privately. But the location of that repository—above ground or below—and how the remains should be incorporated into the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is where the consensus disintegrates. (Requests to speak with the memorial and museum president Joe Daniels and director Alice Greenwald were declined.)
One side contends that a proposal to put the human remains somewhere separate from the museum was scrapped without allowing all next of kin a chance to voice their wishes. They want a letter sent out soliciting opinions. The other side argues that a representative group provided sufficient advice that’s been heeded within the reality of budget, space, time and design constraints. Just one thing is certain: with only days left before the opening of the memorial on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and one year until the museum is unveiled, time is running out to find a final resting place everyone is at peace with.
The current plan is to put the remains in a repository in the museum, which will be located seven stories underground. The medical examiner will control it, and only staff and 9/11 families will be allowed in. Unlike other visitors, 9/11 families won’t pay to enter the museum, and can arrange visits after hours. On an exterior wall of the repository, a quote from Virgil will read, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” and a plaque will mention the human remains and lab. The space “is going to be a place of reverence, respect and honour,” says Iken, who is on the board of directors. “People are going to be in awe. It is going to be talked about as the most significant place in the world.”
Not everyone is so enthused, especially Rosemary Cain. She lost her son George, 35, a firefighter, when the south tower came down on the Marriott Hotel, where he was evacuating guests. She’s frustrated that families will be “rubbing shoulders with tourists” and would rather see the remains in an above-ground repository similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “I don’t think they should be made to be a freak show down there,” says Cain, who received some remains of George. “I waited months for my son to be brought out of that hellhole, and I don’t want anybody to put him back there.”
Diane Horning, whose son Matthew, 27, died in the north tower, says charging visitors to pay respects and learn about 9/11 is “reprehensible” and limits access. “This is a world event. This is the same sort of thing that would draw me to Normandy. Not that I lost someone there, but that I understand the magnitude and the history and that I wish to pay my respects. We’ve taken that away from the public.” She also resents the remains being turned into a “programmatic element” of the museum.
So much so that she and other 9/11 relatives enlisted Colwell-Chanthaphonh of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to help them convey their concerns to the memorial and museum management. There have been ongoing discussions but so far no changes, and no letter to every next of kin. Without that, Colwell-Chanthaphonh says, this resting place will not bring the peace it’s intended to offer all 9/11 families. “It’s never too late for a museum to reconsider how it should care for a collection,” he says. “Especially collections this important.”