9/11 families press fight over remains at museum

By Verena Dobnik Associated Press

In an emotionally loaded legal case, some September 11 families on Wednesday pressed on with their fight to keep unidentified remains of the dead from being stored in the museum at the World Trade Center site.

The group has filed a lawsuit seeking contact information for families of all the 9/11 victims — to poll them about how the remains should be handled.

“This information can’t go to the 9/11 museum, and not to us,” said attorney Norman Siegel, who represents 17 members of 10 families named in the suit.

The case is “unique,” Siegel said, because the remains in question have not been identified — and may never be, despite progress using advancing scientific methods. Therefore, it’s more difficult to apply existing laws giving relatives rights over remains.

“The question is, who owns the unidentified remains?” the attorney asked.

Siegel first filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the contact information in June 2011. The city maintains that releasing it would violate family privacy.

A Manhattan State Supreme Court judge denied the request on the same grounds, and Siegel filed with the Appellate Division in Manhattan.

Oral arguments before five judges were heard on Wednesday.

Siegel cited the principle of so-called selective disclosure — in this case, of the contact information. He said the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. He said he hopes for a decision from the judges in about a month.

Officials plan to take the remains seven stories below ground and place them behind a wall of the new museum that’s under construction.

The remains will not be in the museum’s public space, but rather in a repository solely controlled by the city’s chief medical examiner, said Michael Frazier, spokesman for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Museum staff will not be part of its operations, he said.

Still, some family members who sued would like to see the remains encased in a kind of “tomb of the unknown soldier.”

A key new element in the case is Superstorm Sandy, which flooded the World Trade Center site in October, filling the underground space with water.

If the remains were at the site when the storm hit, “body parts would be floating all over Manhattan,” said Jim Riches, who lost his 29-year-old firefighter son, Jimmy Riches, in the terror attack.

“They promised us the remains would be separate from the museum,” he said. “But they’re going to be in the basement of the museum.”

Riches and others present for the appeal spoke on a Madison Avenue sidewalk opposite the courthouse, their anguished voices rising above the midday Manhattan traffic. Some wept, clutching photos of their dead.

Rosaleen Tallon, sister of fallen firefighter Sean Tallon, held up a photo of the trade center site on the night the storm hit, sending water gushing over the concrete under construction.

“This picture shows us water pouring into ground zero,” she said. “And we feel like nobody cares about the remains of our loved ones anymore.”

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