Unidentified September 11 remains to return to ground zero, renewing strong emotions in families

By Jonathan Lemire Associated Press

NEW YORK — The unidentified remains of those killed at the World Trade Center on September 11 are set to be moved to a repository at ground zero this weekend, renewing a more than decade-long debate among grieving family members about the best final resting place for their loved ones.

The families were notified by a city official last weekend that the remains will be moved on Saturday from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Manhattan’s East Side in a solemn procession led by police and fire department vehicles to the memorial site. Once there, the remains will be placed in a custom-designed repository, located at bedrock level in the same building as the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

The somber setting will be available for family visits but will be overseen by the medical examiner with hopes that improvements in technology could eventually help identify the 7,930 remains.

Opinions among family members about the move are decidedly split, stirring emotions that are still raw more than 12 years after the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history.

“Human remains of American citizens do not belong in the museum,” said Sally Regenhard, the vice chairwoman of the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and W.T.C. Victims. Her son Christian died in the attack.

The city has insisted that the medical examiner-run area is separate from the museum, though housed in the same building. The museum opens to the public May 21.

“It’s intellectually dishonest. You have to go through the museum to get there,” said Regenhard, who said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office should survey the victims’ families about what they want. She prefers a monument like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery placed elsewhere in the memorial.

Some family members also were angry that they received the official notification via an email from a deputy mayor just a week before the transfer.

But others touched by the tragedy felt the repository was a fitting site.

“I’m pleased that they’re going to be doing this, the procession sounds very appropriate,” said Lee Ielpi, who lost his son Jonathan in the attacks. “It will show the world the way we treat our dead. Let’s get them back to the site.”

The remains transfer plan was put into motion in a memorandum of understanding completed on Dec. 31, the final day of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. The memorandum, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, detailed the process by which the families would be told and called for the transfer to be done without public notification.

The de Blasio administration decided to change plans and announce the transfer publicly “to ensure greater transparency about a sensitive subject,” said the mayor’s top spokesman, Phil Walzak.

The decision to move the remains this weekend was first reported by The New York Times.

Forty-one percent of the 2,753 people reported missing at the World Trade Center have not been identified.

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