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Forgetting the 9/11 Victims

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By Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh

In that terrible moment on that bright September morning, when the Twin Towers collapsed, thousands of pounds of steel became entwined with the lives of nearly 2,749 victims, the billowing dust that rained over lower Manhattan intermixed with the ashes of bodies cremated in an instant. Although we might like to imagine that these victims mercifully evaporated into thin air, their remains lingered on.

Since its opening, the National September 11 Memorial Museum has garnered daily headlines. From the exclusive opening ceremonies to architectural critiques to indignation over merchandise sold in the gift shop (including a decorative cheese plate), Ground Zero has again become the most talked about place of memory in America. Lost amid the rush of stories, however, is how the urge to create this public memorial has come at the price of private grief.

No issue embodies this conflict more than the treatment of the World Trade Center victims. When the clean-up of the World Trade Center began, the wreckage was taken to Fresh Kills Landfill, a vast waste dump operated on Staten Island, where workers untrained in forensic recovery searched for remains. An estimated 223,000 tons of World Trade Center rubble were not screened at all before being buried or sold as scrap. Through the years, more remains in lower Manhattan have been found on rooftops and in sewers. In 2006, electricity workers found 160 pieces of bone, including whole limbs, next to a podium used each anniversary to read the victims' names. In 2008, a renewed search unearthed 1,796 new pieces of remains. Since then, construction work at Ground Zero has continued to expose more human fragments.

Today, of the 2,749 victims, remains have not been identified for 1,115. In other words, 41 percent of the victims' families still do not have any corporeal vestige of their loved ones. This gnawing absence is haunting. "For those of us who never received any remains, we're living in an aura of unreality," Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son, Christian, a former Marine and firefighter who died in the terrorist attack, once told me. "You don't have any remains, it's like the person didn't die. I swear it, I feel like he's just away, because there is no tangible proof."

On May 10, a small motorcade quietly transferred nearly 8,000 pouches containing the fragments of the unidentified remains to the new 9/11 museum complex. They will reside there in a room open only to family members, until, it is hoped, the day the Chief Medical Examiner can link the tissue fragments to known victims. Some families clearly expressed gratitude for the move. But just as clearly, others expressed outrage. They are upset that rather than being placed in an above ground Tomb of the Unknown the remains are now below ground, accessible through the museum building; they are upset that a quote by Virgil and plagues were designed as part of the paid visitor experience (at $24 per person) to draw attention to the unidentified remains on the other side of the wall; they are upset that some of the artifacts in the museum's collection called "composites" (crushed WTC floors compressed together) have still not been exhaustively searched for remains.

The controversy over the 9/11 human remains has important parallels with the movement by Native Americans to return their ancestors from museum storage rooms. What museums have learned in recent decades is that the ethical care of human remains requires consent and consultation -- to seek the participation of kin in the decision-making process through open and meaningful dialogue. The 9/11 museum has failed on both counts. The new museum took nine years and a reported $700 million to build, yet administrators found neither the resources nor the time to meaningfully and transparently consult with all of the victims' kin about the management of the unidentified remains.

The unidentified remains of the 9/11 victims who died at the Pentagon were buried at Arlington National Ceremony. At the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, unidentified remains lay in an Arcadian field labeled "Sacred Ground," off limits except to families. While such an approach would be difficult in downtown Manhattan, a living urban space, what many 9/11 families are asking for is nothing more than a voice in the decisions for how their parents, siblings and children are cared for. Ground Zero for them is not a museum but a cemetery.

Now that the museum's opening is over, and the public has been given its space for remembering, it is time for the museum's administrators to return to the private suffering of the victims' families. It is not too late to give the 9/11 families the rights they deserve.

Dr. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh is a museum anthropologist who has advised several 9/11 family groups since 2009.