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9/11 families group pushes to stop remains' storage at ground zero

From Dana Garrett, For CNN
Construction on the 9/11 memorial site continues as family members try to stop the city from storing unidentified remains there.
Construction on the 9/11 memorial site continues as family members try to stop the city from storing unidentified remains there.
  • Freedom of Information Law request filed seeking names, addresses of 9/11 families
  • 17 family members say they are displeased with plans for repository for remains
  • National September 17 Memorial and Museum disputes group's claim
  • NYC will not release information, spokesman for mayor says

New York (CNN) -- Some family members of people killed in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks announced Thursday that they have requested the names and addresses of other survivors as part of an effort to stop the city from placing unidentified remains in a repository in a museum under construction at ground zero.

A spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said flatly that providing the names "is not something we will do."

The 17 family members filed a Freedom of Information Law request so they can notify other families and seek their input. They say they and other families were never notified or consulted about the plan, which they consider part of a commercial operation to lure tourists.

"These are our beloved remains, our sons, our daughters, our siblings and spouses," Rosemary Cain said. Her son, George Cain, was a New York City firefighter killed on 9/11. "We have the right to decide where they will spend eternity."

More than half of the families of the 2,749 victims of the World Trade Center attacks never received any remains of their loved ones. Many others were able to bury only partial remains. More than 9,000 body parts are still unidentified and have been stored in temporary structures maintained by the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The current plan calls for the remains to be housed in an underground repository, behind a wall in the museum, and adjacent to a memorial gallery filled with pictures and artifacts of the victims. The museum, which is under construction, is located beneath the footprints of the two World Trade Center towers. The repository will be controlled by the medical examiner's office, which will continue to have access to the remains in the hope that, as DNA technology progresses, more positive identifications can be made.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum disputes the claims that families were never notified about the plans, and says it was the express wish of many families that their loved ones' remains return to the bedrock at ground zero.

"Families have been part of a robust process through which they were consulted during public and private meetings with officials, as well as offered opportunities for public comment," according to a statement from the organization. "And they have repeatedly stated it is essential the remains return to the sacred bedrock of the site."

Feedback from those meetings also led to the creation of a private space, open only to families, near the repository. And families will also be able to make individual appointments to visit the repository after hours, according to the 9/11 Memorial organization.

In response to the FOIL request, a spokesman for Bloomberg said, "Many family members would rightly be outraged if the city made their personal information, including home addresses, public, and of course that is not something we will do."

Additional FOIL requests were also sent to the mayor's community affairs unit, the medical examiner and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Retired Deputy Chief Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son Jimmy Riches on 9/11 and is part of the group that filed the FOIL request, said he always knew the remains would come back to ground zero.

"But we were told it was going to be separate and distinct from the museum and visitor's center," he said, adding that what he envisioned was more akin to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, that would be above ground and distinct from the museum.

Like the other family members he joined at the Thursday press conference near ground zero, Riches said he never received any notification about the decision with regard to the remains.

In a recent opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, family members who are also board members of the museum foundation said it was decided that an underground repository was better than an above-ground tomb.

"The latter structure would be a constant magnet for disrespectful public displays and demonstrations ... and would be impossible to secure around the clock," they wrote.

Riches dismissed the notion that an above-ground tomb could not be protected.

Attorney Norman Siegel, who filed the FOIL request on behalf of the families, said he has seen "not a single letter ...that was addressed to the families notifying them of the plan and asking them for their input regarding the plan."

In contrast, Rosaleen Tallon, who lost her firefighter brother Sean Patrick Tallon on 9/11, said she had received letters from the 9/11 Memorial regarding other matters, such as confirming the correct spelling of her brother's name and informing her of location of the name on the above-ground memorial.

"Surely a letter should have been sent out on letterhead from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the City of New York telling us, at the very least, what they were doing with our loved ones' remains," she said.