On Saturday morning on the southern tip of Manhattan, more than 12 years after the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a solemn cortege of emergency vehicles will carry the unidentified remains of those who perished that day – bringing them from the city’s medical examiner’s office to their new resting place at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The “somber, respectful procession” will include a fleet of New York City police and firefighters, as well as workers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They will ceremonially transfer the remains to a special new repository 70 feet under ground zero, at the bedrock reaches of the museum, which is set to open to the public on May 21.
For at least some of the family members of the victims, the emotions of their loss still cut deeply. On Thursday, many of them gathered near ground zero to protest the planned procession, saying that putting the repository at the museum – a public place where visitors will pay $24 to visit – is disrespectful and undignified. They say it’s a “slap in the face” to some families who still feel ignored by the site’s planners.
“We’ve been saying for years now, this is not a place where the remains should go,” says Glenn Corbett, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who has served as an adviser to some victims’ families. “You shouldn’t put a museum and human remains together.”
But after years of emotional objections, including unsuccessful attempts to stop the plan in court, the remains will finally be brought to a private section of the museum, away from public view. There, a small medical examiner’s office will continue to try to identify the 7,930 slivers of human remains.
There are still 1,115 victims of the attacks who have not been identified through DNA analysis, or 41 percent of the 2,753 people reported missing at the World Trade Center that day.
The repository will include a private, families-only Reflection Room, which will open next Thursday for family members, about a week before the museum opens to the general public.
But for Rosemary Cain, who lost her son George, this resting place – and the decisionmaking process that created it – lack “respect and dignity for their sacred remains.” Mr. Cain was a firefighter with Ladder 7 in Manhattan, a company that lost six in the south tower that day.
“And why did they have to pick Mother’s Day weekend? Why did they have to do this to the mothers?” Ms. Cain says through tears. “They could have done it last week, they could have done it next week.... It’s not heartbreaking enough, every Mother’s Day, to have to accept in our hearts that our sons, our beautiful sons, were murdered so brutally, and now they’re going to slap us in the face tomorrow.”
Cain says she will join a number of family members near ground zero on Saturday, again to protest the ceremonial transfer. On Thursday, she stood in drizzling rain near the World Trade Center’s gleaming new glass skyscrapers, holding a large sign with a picture of her son, who was smiling broadly in full firefighting gear. The sign read, “Human Remains Don’t belong In Museums.”
Family members have appealed to the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as President Obama, asking them to put a halt to the transfer – or at the very least, do a thorough poll of the some 3,000 families who lost a loved one.
“The de Blasio Administration is implementing the remains transfer plan it inherited from the previous Administration,” said Phil Walzak, press secretary for Mayor de Blasio, in a statement. “Our administration has engaged the community of 9/11 families continuously since entering office four months ago. This includes talking with and listening to families who have questions about this plan – as well as many families who are supportive and comfortable with this plan.”
Monica Iken is among those whose loved one has not been identified and who approves of the transfer plan. Her husband, Michael, a bond broker on the 84th floor of the south tower, died that day.
“I have been waiting for this day for almost 13 years,” Ms. Iken, who has become active in 9/11 remembrances, told The New York Times. “He needs to have me there as well. It has been a long time, and I am very happy.”
Eileen Fagan, whose sister Patricia worked on the 98th floor of the south tower, also told the Times she was pleased with the plan.
“That is where they died, that is where there is a proper memorial for them, and to me it is a good, safe, and holy place,” she said.
Some families who object to the plan prefer to keep the remains above ground, outside the museum, and perhaps in the public plaza.
“It could be something like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Cain says. “You can go down to D.C., you can pay your respects, you can say your prayer, and you don’t have to pay $25 to do it.”
“Now, in order for the families or anyone to get anywhere near the remains, you have to go through the museum,” Professor Corbett says.
Family members, however, will not have to pay the museum admission to visit the repository.
The city explains that a team of medical examiners will be continuing their work to find the identities of victims. New DNA extraction technology yields results impossible a decade ago, and four new identifications were made over the past year. The team has an annual budget of $230,000, according to city officials.
"Our commitment to return the remains to the families is as great today as it was in 2001," said Mark Desire, who will oversee the four-member team at the site, according to the Associated Press.