Risk of Flooding Will Not Alter Plan to Preserve 9/11 Remains

By David W. Dunlap New York Times

Norman Siegel, a lawyer for relatives of 9/11 victims who oppose placing unidentified remains at bedrock level at the World Trade Center, spoke at a news conference last month before a court appearance. David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

Norman Siegel, a lawyer for relatives of 9/11 victims who oppose placing unidentified remains at bedrock level at the World Trade Center, spoke at a news conference last month before a court appearance. David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

Despite what is now a known risk of flooding, the Bloomberg administration and the 9/11 memorial foundation still intend to place the unidentified remains of World Trade Center victims at the bedrock level of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, as they have long planned to do.

They do not intend to canvass the victims’ relatives to learn whether opposition emerged after Hurricane Sandy, during which at least seven feet of water flooded the bedrock level of the unfinished museum. They said the question of where to place the remains was settled long ago, with the relatives’ knowledge and assent, and need not be revisited. They also said that the safety of the remains can be guaranteed. A group of 17 family members wants to survey all the next of kin, in the belief that most would prefer a different resting place for what may — or may not — be the remains of their relatives. But the city will not turn over its master mailing list of those relatives, citing privacy concerns. Its refusal to do so was upheld last month by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

Under the current plan, 8,354 unidentified human remains are to be stored in a repository, controlled by the city’s chief medical examiner, adjoining the underground museum. The repository will not be open or visible to the public. The remains will be kept there permanently or until new forensic technologies permit them to be linked to individuals who died in the attack.

A private space outside the repository will be set aside for relatives. The public will see only a solid wall with an inscription from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Opponents predict a disastrous end to the remains if they are placed at bedrock level. “It’s going to flood again, and they’re going to float all over Lower Manhattan,” said James Riches, a retired deputy fire chief whose son, Jimmy Riches, was killed on September 11.

The flooded main gallery of the National September 11 Memorial Museum after Hurricane Sandy. The object in the right foreground is a wrapped fire truck, giving some idea of the water’s depth.

The flooded main gallery of the National September 11 Memorial Museum after Hurricane Sandy. The object in the right foreground is a wrapped fire truck, giving some idea of the water’s depth.

Referring to the fact that the museum sits in Flood Zone A, which is the area most at risk for hurricane flooding. Rosaleen Tallon, the sister of Sean Patrick Tallon, who was killed on 9/11, said, “There was more water pouring into Zone A than we see pouring into the waterfalls.”

Norman Siegel, a lawyer representing Mr. Riches, Ms. Tallon and the other opponents, said, “We think an overwhelming percentage of the families will say ‘no’ to the current plan.”

The Bloomberg administration and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, which is headed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, disputed the risk of flooding.

“We are going to make that room watertight,” said Joseph C. Daniels, the president and chief executive of the memorial foundation. After last year’s storm, he said, talks had begun with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the site, on new measures to safeguard the remains.

“We’ll be able to assuredly tell ourselves and, most important, the family members that we have measures in place to protect things that are precious beyond description,” Mr. Daniels said.

He said floodwaters penetrated the museum because much of the adjoining underground construction was not yet finished, meaning that there were large openings into the museum that would eventually be closed off by solid concrete walls.

Beyond that, Mr. Daniels said, officials are considering a watertight, multilayered membrane around the repository, using fiberglass panels and sealants. “It’s almost like creating a reverse bathtub,” he said, “so the water just can’t get in it all.”

Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the chief medical examiner, added: “The remains are stored in Bioseal pouches and then in closed bins, which would protect them if water somehow came in. We will always do whatever is necessary to protect the remains, including evacuate them to a safer location in dire circumstances.”

Mr. Daniels said no thought had been given to placing the remains anywhere else, even after Hurricane Sandy. “The families spoke very collectively and very loudly through a very robust process that began shortly after 9/11,” he said. “The notion of bringing the remains back to sacred bedrock, which was their mantra, is what we need to do.”

On Jan. 31, the Appellate Division ruled that if the city disclosed its mailing list to the opponents’ group, it “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The city’s Law Department argued in its brief that it could claim that the mailing list was exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law and simultaneously “disclose exempt information to a party requesting that information” — that is, the memorial foundation, which is a private corporation.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey A diagram of the bedrock level of the World Trade Center site shows the National September 11 Memorial Museum in pale green. A superimposed red outline indicates the area set aside as a repository for unidentified human remains, a family visiting room and a medical examiner’s office. The diagonal areas to the right of the museum represent the PATH station platforms. The blue area is mechanical space. The partial outlines of the twin towers are also shown.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey A diagram of the bedrock level of the World Trade Center site shows the National September 11 Memorial Museum in pale green. A superimposed red outline indicates the area set aside as a repository for unidentified human remains, a family visiting room and a medical examiner’s office. The diagonal areas to the right of the museum represent the PATH station platforms. The blue area is mechanical space. The partial outlines of the twin towers are also shown.

Mr. Siegel said he might seek to appeal or reargue the case, in part because the opinion did not deal with this issue. “The city cannot selectively disclose the list,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on 02/21/2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Risk of Flooding Will Not Alter Plans to Preserve 9/11 Remains.

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