By Mike Kelly The Record
The phone rang at the Ringwood home of Joyce and Vincent Boland six weeks after the Twin Towers fell on that fateful September Tuesday in 2001.
A piece of the body of their 25-year-old son, Vincent, Jr., had been identified amid the rubble of Ground Zero.
The Bolands endured a tearful funeral, placing the small fragment of their son’s remains in a coffin, then driving with it to a mausoleum in Bergen County.
Then the phone rang again – and again.
Over the next few years, the Bolands received two more remnants of their son’s body, the last pieces of bone discovered amid World Trade Center steel being cleaned at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. In each case, the Bolands went back to the mausoleum, reopened their son’s coffin and placed the fragments inside.
“It’s something you don’t want to do,” said Joyce, a retired nurse.
Vincent Sr., a retired teacher, added, “But we’ll keep going back if we have to.”
While perhaps gruesome and certainly heart-wrenching, the Bolands’ experience is not unusual. On Tuesday it will be 11 years since the September 11 attacks, and yet families are still receiving partial remains of the dead, many for the second and third time. It may be the least-discussed legacy of the much-analyzed attacks.
Since February alone, about three dozen families have been called by the New York City medical examiner’s office and told that additional pieces of their loved ones’ bodies had been identified. A medical examiner’s spokeswoman, Ellen Borakove, says that in the 11 years since the attacks, a majority of victims had “multiple identifications.”
When a call is made, it does not lead to ceremonies with dignitaries, flags or mournful music from bagpipers – nothing to call attention to a quiet processing of the dead. But in real terms, the calls mean that families resurrect their grief multiple times, often reopening emotional scars they thought had been healed.
“I credit the medical examiner with saying they will never close the books, but we wonder how long we would wait,” said Diane Horning of Scotch Plains, who received three pieces of the remains of her 26-year-old son, Matthew, and vows to exhume his coffin if there are more.
Horning actually received four calls from the medical examiner. But after turning over a fragment of bone, the office called back. A mistake had been made. The fragment was actually a piece of another victim’s body.
Whether it’s fear of mistakes or fear of the phone ringing again and again, some relatives, such as James “Rick” Cahill of West Caldwell, told the medical examiner not to call any more after his family received a single fragment of the body of his 30-year-old son, Scott.
“My family didn’t want phone calls, month after month or year after year,” said Cahill, who presided over the foundation that raised money for New Jersey’s 9/11 memorial in Liberty State Park.
Herb Ouida of River Edge has received four fragments of his 25-year-old son, Todd’s remains, and would welcome more. “There is no mold for how to handle this,” he said. “We are groping from step to step.”
Perhaps because the issue is so uniquely personal for families of victims, the impact of multiple identifications is rarely discussed. And yet, for many families, it is unrelenting.
For others, however, the wait for identification is an emotional void.
Of the 2,750 [sic] people who died at the World Trade Center- including more than 700 from New Jersey – the remains of only 1,630 have been identified. That means the relatives of 1,120 victims – about 40 percent of the total – are still awaiting news.
Many held memorial services in the months after the attacks. But without any human remains, some have created new methods to deal with grief in the ensuing years.
Anthony Gardner of Verona said his family purchased a cemetery plot and tombstone, even though no trace of his brother, Harvey, 35, was ever found. Gardner said his family buried a small coffin filled with his brother’s keepsakes. “It’s almost unnatural,” he said. “Part of the grieving process is to understand that that person is gone and you have a chance to say goodbye in some sense. We never had that. It complicates the grieving process, for sure.”
After the Twin Towers fell, the authorities found fewer than 200 whole and identifiable bodies, the New York medical examiner’s office said. The medical examiner faced the unprecedented task of sorting and identifying 21,817 body parts, some of them discovered years later.
DNA identification of the fragments has been painstakingly slow. The technology has improved so much that some remains deemed unidentifiable a decade ago were recently identified.
Complicating the issue, 17 families of victims are now appealing a New York judge’s ruling that effectively blocked them from challenging plans to place the roughly 8,800 still-unidentified body fragments below ground in a special mausoleum at the 9/11 museum. The families say the remains should be above ground.
“We gave Osama bin Laden a better burial than my son,” said Sally Regenhard of Yonkers, N.Y., who joined the lawsuit in part because the remains of her son, Christopher, 28, a New York City firefighter, were never identified.
For Herb Ouida, the pain is somewhat different, because some pieces of his son’s remains were found. He says he finds comfort in a foundation he started in his son’s name to raise money for at-risk children. He says he still waits for another phone call from the medical examiner.
“We have remains,” he said. “But that wasn’t healing.”