By Jim Dwyer New York Times
On the phone were Monica Gabrielle and Kristen Breitweiser. Their husbands died at the World Trade Center in the September 11 attack. This week, a new effort to find remains from the site uncovered 39 pieces of what appeared to be human bones. That was the yield from the first three days of work in a process that is expected to go on for at least two months.
It turns out that 60 dump trucks’ worth of soil from the trade center site, identified as long as two and half years ago as possibly holding human remains, has been sitting untouched beneath a tarp on Staten Island. The startling possibility exists that the remains of a large number of people could be found and identified in the months ahead, nearly 12 years after the attack.
“We are not stupid,” Monica Gabrielle said, in classic understatement. “We wouldn’t be surprised if they are finding shards and tiny pieces down there 50 years from now.”
Ms. Breitweiser jumped in. “But if they found some of this stuff two years ago,” she asked, “what is the explanation for why it is sitting so long?”
Neither woman was in a hurry to make demands for attention from a public for whom September 11 is an episode of faded power. Yet their relentlessness over the last 12 years has served major civic purposes that would otherwise not have been met.
Ms. Breitweiser, Ms. Gabrielle and others refused to accept anything short of an independent commission to investigate the attack, using their status as survivors to overcome arguments that such an inquiry would be dangerous to a country at war. In fact, not doing so would have been far more dangerous: the commission they willed into existence began to peel back a history of blundering, mismanagement and dishonesty in national security affairs.
Two wars and three presidential elections later, they are waiting for body parts. Ms. Gabrielle has received none of the remains of her husband, Richard; Ms. Breitweiser received the arms of her husband, Ronald, two years apart.
“I know people think it’s more whining,” Ms. Gabrielle said. “But really, why should this have been left sitting out there?”
The soil being sifted was excavated from West Street, near the World Financial Center, on the western border of the trade center site. During the demolition and removal of the towers’ remnants, some areas were paved over before searches were done. In recent years, as new buildings have been erected, some of those areas were exposed.
An anthropologist from the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner has been on the site since 2006, when human remains were unexpectedly discovered in a manhole.
“We are continuously monitoring the construction site, and we collect material if we think there is a possibility of human remains in it,” Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, said. That material is moved to a place where it is sifted — now on Staten Island — and anything that looks like a bone is collected. An anthropologist on the site does a preliminary check, and then it is sent to the medical examiner’s office to determine if it is from a human being, and, if DNA can be extracted, to make an identification. The last such sifting operation ended in mid-2010.
Between then and the end of 2011, about 600 cubic yards of debris and soil have been taken away. No more material was hauled away in 2012. The sifting process began again on Monday of this week. Why did it take so long?
“I would reframe the discussion,” Amanda Konstam, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said. “We’ve been looking constantly. You have to get a critical mass of material. It is done outdoors, so it is weather dependent — it can’t be done when it is very hot or cold.”
Assembling the money and the people to do the sifting work cannot be done overnight, Ms. Borakove said. About 35 to 40 people, some temporary workers and others from city agencies, were involved in the search on Thursday. On Monday, two possible body parts were found; on Tuesday, 16; on Wednesday, 21.
“They’ve been sifting for three days, and each day they’ve found more,” Ms. Breitweiser said. “It’s an awful lot of discovery in such a short time. I was fortunate enough to get some remains. What if Monica’s husband’s bones have been there for two years?”
“If it was sitting there, and they could have identified it,” Ms. Gabrielle said, “that’s a bit heinous.”