Volume 19 | Issue 28 | November 24 - 30, 2006

W.T.C. remains search splits community board

Downtown Express file photo by Elisabeth Robert
The city is searching the west end of the World Trade Center site for the remains of 9/11 victims. After a Community Board 1 committee recommended not using the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command as part of the search, as family members have requested, the full board tabled the resolution and planned to take the matter up again in December.

By Skye H. McFarlane

For the inhabitants of Lower Manhattan, the search for human remains at the World Trade Center site touches on the raw nerves of what is still an open gash in the heart of the community.

Those nerves flared last week as Community Board 1 attempted to take a position on several search-related issues, revealing that for residents, the recovery effort collides and commingles with desires for rebuilding and retail, and concerns about safety, noise and environmental hazards.

“If we had to rely on the feds after 9/11, we would have been like New Orleans,” said C.B. 1 member Jeff Galloway, arguing against federal involvement in the remains search at the board's W.T.C. Committee meeting.

“I think you're confusing JPAC [U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command] with FEMA,” fellow committee member Allan Tannenbaum shot back. “I can see no downside to bringing in JPAC, if nothing else but for the psychological value to the families.” After two meetings filled with such debate, C.B. 1 decided to table its pro-city, anti-noise resolution until the mayor's top forensic anthropologist can fill the full board in on the details of the impending search.

The anthropologist in question, Dr. Brad Adams, worked for seven years at JPAC, where he helped to write the agency's manual of operating procedures. JPAC is the federal agency that 9/11 family members have asked be brought in to assist the city with its renewed search for remains, an investigation that began after utility workers discovered bone fragments and personal effects in an abandoned manhole on Oct. 19.

On Oct. 27, the mayor's office outlined what will be a year-long effort to examine locations that were overlooked during the nine-month search after 9/11. On Nov. 13, Adams and Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler appeared before the W.T.C. Committee to answer questions from the community.

Skyler explained that the new search will entail a thorough canvassing of three buildings adjacent to the World Trade Center site - 130 Liberty St., 130 Cedar St. and Fiterman Hall - that were breached during the trade center collapse. The search will also include the rooftops of One Liberty Plaza and the Millenium Hotel, spot excavations of the service road on the west side of the W.T.C. and the paved-over site at 140 Liberty St., and an exploration of pre-9/11 manholes near the site.

In Battery Park City, manholes in the area around the World Financial Center will be emptied using vacuum trucks and the contents will be sifted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Skyler revealed that the vacuuming will take place over a 90-day period starting at the end of December and that the work is scheduled from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. When asked whether the trucks would be noisy or disturb the sleep of B.P.C. residents, Skyler paused, saying he had never heard the question before.

Several committee members replied that the name “vacuum truck” implied a certain amount of noise and that they would prefer not to hear sucking sounds or have trucks spewing diesel all night long. Skyler vowed to look into the matter, but as he soon discovered, the barrage of sharp questions had only begun.

Neither Skyler nor Adams was quite able to answer queries as to why residential buildings like 125 Cedar St., which were also breached and coated with debris in the W.T.C. collapse, had not been added to the search. Skyler, who again seemed surprised at the question, said that “it's been five years” and that the group of agencies that wrote the new search parameters had included all sites in which there was “any chance” of finding remains.

As for the search protocols, Dr. Adams explained that the controversial spot excavations (some 9/11 family members want the entire pavement on the haul road removed) will actually be part of an archaeology-style grid survey of the area. In each of the grids, the layer of 9/11 material will be removed and studied in a controlled environment off site, along with the dust removed from the manholes.

He said that all materials will be washed through two sets of screen filters under the supervision of a trained forensic anthropologist. This is important, he said, because most of the 900-plus bone fragments that have been found atop the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty and in the W.T.C. site manholes have been mere shards, smaller than the diameter of a quarter.

Skyler added that the mayor would spare no expense to ensure that the job is done right this time, saying, “It'll cost what it'll cost and the city will pay for it.”

But many of those present questioned why the city is taking sole charge of the search. Sally Regenhard, who lost her son on 9/11, argued that the city rushed its initial search and that outside oversight from JPAC or some other agency is necessary to make sure that things are done properly the second time around.

“I know they are just little bone fragments,” Regenhard said. “But if it was the little bone of your child, you would want to find it.”

Some committee members questioned whether the city was trying to cover up its past missteps, while others simply asked, “Why not?”- a refrain that has been posed by several local politicians who side with the families.

Sayar Lonial, an aide to City Council-member Alan Gerson, read a statement from Gerson: “We agree with the mayor that excellent work has been done…the best possible work that could be done at the time, but yet more remains have been found and will continue to be found. The city is not in a position to refuse help.”

While Skyler repeated the mayor's assertion that the search is “the city's responsibility and we have the resources to do it on our own,” Adams elaborated considerably on what that means. Beyond the 10 additional forensic anthropologists that the city has agreed to hire, Adams said that he had a list of 40 forensic anthropologists and osteologists (bone specialists) in the New York area who have volunteered to join the search as needed. He also pointed out that JPAC squads, which are based out of Hawaii and work primarily in war zones, have just one forensic anthropologist per team. The other JPAC experts, he said, are trained in specialties like foreign languages and the dismantling of explosives.

“They're an incredible unit but…you've got more anthropologists on site now than you would with JPAC,” Adams said.

The committee itself came up with a few other reasons not to involve JPAC, including a distrust of the federal government, the belief that an additional agency would slow the process and possibly halt construction and the claim that calling in JPAC during a time of war would be selfish of the city.

“Every anthropologist we'd be using here, that would be one anthropologist not in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Galloway said. “Is it fair to take a resource we don't need?”

In the end, Adams' responses appeared to satisfy some of the C.B. 1 members. A resolution asking for the city to bring in JPAC was defeated and an alternate resolution supporting the mayor's position passed, 9-3, with three abstentions. In addition to stating that the city should be responsible for the search, the resolution said that construction at the W.T.C. site should continue, even as the search proceeds. It also asked that the city further clarify and publicize its search protocols and that the city make every effort to mitigate the noise of the nighttime vacuum trucks in Battery Park City.

However, when the resolution came before the full board on Nov. 15, it sparked another round of heated arguments. Fears of further delays at ground zero clashed with fears that the city is engaging in a turf war or trying to conceal a faulty search plan. Regenhard, for her part, said she felt betrayed by the board, which has worked together with the 9/11 families on some other issues.

Some board members questioned why the board was taking sides in the debate while others said that they did not have enough information to make an informed vote. Therefore, the board decided to delay the decision until all board members could hear what Dr. Adams had to say. With the motion to table passed, C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin declared the subject closed. As the ensuing shouts and groans made clear, however, the wounds felt by the community remain decidedly raw and open.

With reporting by Lori Haught

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