The Remains of Fresh Kills

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Diane and Kurt Horning visit the Fresh Kills Landfill every few months. They describe it as a barren and desolate wasteland, strewn with debris and overgrown with weeds. Large tire tracks and gaping ruts where erosion has occurred splinter some portions of the landscape. The smell of methane gas leaking from rusty metal pipes overwhelms the senses. Photographs of the landfill reveal old sneakers, boots, carpeting, tires and other garbage lying among the rocks and pebbles that top its dry, brown soil.

“I don’t go there for solace,” Diane explains of her trips to Fresh Kills, which, she says, contains the remains of her son, Matthew, a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. “Usually after I go there, it takes me a whole day to recover because it’s so disturbing.”

Despite its current appearance, the future of Fresh Kills looks bright. The City of New York plans to turn the decades-old Staten Island landfill into a vibrant 2,200-acre public park fit for bird watching, eco-education, kayaking, mountain biking and other recreational activities. Staten Island Borough President James P. Molinaro has said the blighted land will be transformed into a “21st century lifescape.”

But for the Hornings and other families who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001, Fresh Kills symbolizes death. They claim that amid some 50 years worth of waste and refuse are bone fragments, hair, fingernails, tissue particles, ashes and even body parts belonging to the many people who died that morning when the Twin Towers came crashing down onto Manhattan’s busy streets.

Before 9/11, these families expected to continue sharing with their loved ones those everyday interactions most people take for granted—things as simple as dinner, an evening phone call or a kiss goodbye. What they didn’t expect was to be fighting for the separation and sifting of tons of landfill debris, and the relocation of victims’ remains to a proper burial site. Neither did they anticipate the five-years’ worth of petitions, rallies, mass mailings, meetings with government officials and complex legal proceedings that would come with that fight. Now, their struggle is in the hands of the courts.

Next month, a federal judge is expected to rule on whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the city by 17 family members of 9/11 victims, which claims it negligently handled human remains that were brought to Fresh Kills following the WTC attacks. The city moved for dismissal last October on grounds that the suit lacks sufficient legal standing, but the plaintiffs presented new evidence in late March that they hope would strengthen their case and bring about their first steps towards closure; closure they say can be achieved only once their loved ones are given an honorable interment.

Part of a letter written by a woman whose daughter died in the WTC attacks sums up their plight: “I delivered my daughter in a clean hospital. I brought her home to a clean crib. I kept her clean all her life, and now she is resting in a garbage dump.”

The Personal is Political
There’s a sewing machine on the dining room table in Diane and Kurt Horning’s central New Jersey home. Diane spends her free time using it to make small black-and-purple ribbons that honor the WTC victims.
“I’m hoping to make a thousand of them,” she explains, saying the ribbons would be distributed at a rally at Ground Zero a week from our meeting. “But we’ll see.”

Their son Matthew’s old room is upstairs. He worked in the information technology department for the insurance brokerage firm Marsh & McLennan on the 95th floor of Tower One, where he most likely was when the first plane hit. He was 26 at the time, living in Hoboken and engaged. The Hornings held a memorial service for him that October, and buried locally the few remains that were initially returned to them. Though they could not bring themselves to talk about what those remains consisted of, Diane says she was able to hold on her lap a box containing “less than one-tenth of her son.”

Years earlier, after Matthew moved out, Diane “took over” his bedroom as a place to showcase her collection of teacups, dozens of which are carefully arranged on shelves protruding from the light-blue walls. Now the room is a command center of sorts, scattered with boxes, files, records, letters, scrapbooks and the contact information of more than 1,000 9/11 families. Diane spends much of her time at a computer station set against the far wall where she works on the lobbying, research and media functions that accompany the lawsuit. The kitchen table, too, is covered with stacks of paper and files that have been amassed over the course of the Fresh Kills excavation campaign, which for the Hornings, now in their early sixties, has become full-time.

In 2002, the Hornings and various other victims’ families formed World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial, the organization in whose name the lawsuit is filed. The group’s work over the past five years has been a combination of grassroots outreach and advocacy. It’s difficult to gauge how many people are involved since it’s a non-membership organization, but some 1,100 WTC victims’ families, as well as Pentagon victims’ families, survivors, rescue workers and volunteers from all over the country have offered assistance, says Diane, the group’s president.

At the center of WTC Families is a petition bearing more than 63,000 signatures, copies of which have been hand-delivered to the offices of Mayor Bloomberg, former Gov. George Pataki, and other officials. To date, none of them have responded, according to Diane.

WTC Families has also lobbied in Trenton, and in December 2003 succeeded in passing a law under former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey that compels the Port Authority to move the remains. Since similar legislation has yet to pass New York’s assembly, the law has not yet taken effect.

Additionally, the organization has received endorsements from 15 U.S. senators, many U.S. Congress members, governors, more than 150 New York and New Jersey municipalities and various civic, religious, political and uniformed personnel and veterans’ organizations. Members have met with the head of intergovernmental affairs at the White House and have written letters to President George W. Bush, who has also received hand-delivered letters from members of Congress on the group’s behalf. Though he has never responded, Diane says she is certain the president is aware of the situation at Fresh Kills. The group has received a fair amount of media coverage, but the Fresh Kills issue seems to have been overshadowed by other 9/11-related news items, such as ongoing sickness and emotional trauma among first responders and recovery workers.

Kurt Horning says one of the most difficult things has been finding people in positions of authority who care about the situation at Fresh Kills and are willing to show the same level of concern as those who are affected by it.

“At first we thought that once we raised awareness about what had happened everyone would spring to action,” he says. “But just showing that a wrong has been committed isn’t enough anymore.”

Take It to the Courts
Eventually, WTC Families saw no recourse other than litigation. Their lawsuit, which was filed in August 2005 and names 17 individuals, including the Hornings, as plaintiffs, argues that during the WTC recovery effort, some victims’ remains were negligently bulldozed into a portion of Fresh Kills that is allocated for household waste, thus violating the families’ rights to next-of-kin property and religious observance.

The suit also alleges city officials told family members that tiny debris siftings believed to contain victims’ ashen remains were being kept separate from the rest of the debris that was sorted at Fresh Kills, but the plaintiffs later learned these “fines,” as they are called, had in fact been dumped into the landfill with no plan for removal.

Eric Beck, a supervisor for the recycling facility that was brought to Fresh Kills to sift the debris, testifies in one of several affidavits filed with the suit on March 23 that he witnessed the Department of Sanitation take away some of the fines to be used to pave roads and fill potholes. Other affidavits assert that significant portions of debris likely containing human body parts or other remains were simply raked, shoveled and bulldozed into the landfill, even after sophisticated screening machinery had been brought to the site. Theodore Feaser, a Department of Sanitation supervisor during the Fresh Kills recovery effort, estimates that approximately 223,000 tons of debris are unaccounted for, and says he is convinced that “hundreds of human body parts and human remains” could be found in the landfill.

Also filed was a 2003 letter in which the city’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles S. Hirsch wrote that the tiny debris particles sifted at the landfill did in fact contain human remains, and that he was “virtually certain that at least some human tissue is mixed with the dirt at the … landfill.”

The suit, which a judge for U.S. District Court in Manhattan is currently reviewing, does not ask for monetary compensation, but rather for the city to search for and relocate any remains that exist in the landfill. The families believe it is bolstered by recent discoveries near Ground Zero. In the past year, nearly 1,000 human remains fragments have been found at the former Deustche Bank building, and last month, the northbound lanes of West Street in downtown Manhattan were closed so workers could dig up the road and search for remains that were possibly buried when recovery workers rebuilt the highway alongside the WTC ruins. Both instances seem to increase the likelihood that some remains—whether small ashen siftings or actual body parts—may also be found at Fresh Kills.

But the city maintains that the lawsuit’s negligence claim is unfounded; that all WTC material a quarter of an inch or larger was examined both visually and manually, and that “comprehensive search processes” employed during the nearly year-long recovery effort enabled it to provide thousands of remains to the medical examiner’s office for possible identification. The majority of the remains that were recovered and identified came from Ground Zero; only several hundred from Fresh Kills could be identified.

The city has filed several affidavits of its own, which it says support the integrity and transparency of the Fresh Kills recovery operations. Before detailing the search process in one such document, an NYPD detective who oversaw the recovery efforts at the landfill states: “[I]f I had any knowledge, or even the slightest reason to believe that the WTC material was being improperly searched and that human body parts were being deposited at Fresh Kills, I would have halted the operation immediately.” In another, a high-ranking official from the Department of Sanitation, which transported the WTC material to Fresh Kills and within the landfill, testifies that debris that was not at first sifted mechanically was later excavated and run through the screening machines.

Since the suit is in litigation, comment has been limited, but a spokeswoman told me that the city “does not believe it should be compelled to re-sift through the materials at Fresh Kills,” a process she says could cost tens of millions of dollars according to estimates. The motion to dismiss states:

“[E]leven families (and even an association that claims to represent 1,000 families) do not have the right to overturn the city’s decision on how to treat the WTC material … The possibility that the remains of some victims may not have been found in the process of searching the WTC material does not empower this court to order the City of New York to commit tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to resift and relocate the material.”

If the suit fails, the families could very well find themselves back to square one after five long years of fighting. If that does happen, will their fight have been worth it? Would it not be better to move on?

Moving On
According to Ilene Cohen, director of psychology for Bellevue Hospital Center, it’s not so much a matter of whether it’s better to move on, but a matter of not being able to move on.

“If people could just move on, they would,” she says during a phone interview. “They don’t want to be stuck in this place of not knowing, not being able to process their grief. People don’t choose not to move on.”

Bellevue Hospital treated many survivors on 9/11 and worked with victims’ family members in the days and weeks following the attacks. Cohen now oversees the hospital’s current WTC project, part of which deals with treating people who have a variety of residual mental health and emotional issues related to 9/11. She stresses the importance of burials and other concrete rituals to overcoming grief.

“In order for people to move on with the grieving process, they need to be able, if possible, to have concrete evidence of their loved ones, and it’s important for them to feel that the remains of their loved ones have been treated respectfully,” she says.

Indeed, the Hornings and many of the families they’ve come to represent feel as if it’s been impossible to attain closure.

“I think there’s a logical grieving progression and we have not been allowed to follow it,” says Diane. “We’ve been kept in a position where we’ve had to be very public about our fight rather than private about our grief, and we’ve not been given that step in dealing with death that is the burial, and having a place where you can find solace with your loved one.”

Rose Foti lost her 42-year-old son, Robert, during the attacks. A 13-year Fire Department veteran, he was wrapping up an overnight shift the morning of September 11 when the first plane hit and he was sent down to Ground Zero. He never came home.

“I never really got an official notice,” says Foti. “No one ever looked me in the eye and said, ‘He’s gone.’ I just felt it.”
Foti says she was “really doing fine” coping with the loss of her son until one night two and a half years ago, when during a support meeting for victims’ parents, she learned about the situation at Fresh Kills. She’s suffered emotional distress ever since.

“There is no such thing as closure,” she says. “It’s really hard to explain what this has done to me, but all I know is I was fine until I found out about [Fresh Kills]. I really lost my mind then, and became a mess because I couldn’t believe our country would do something like this. You can’t go a day without hearing the numbers 9/11. Somehow it comes up every single day. So it will never go away, but let us bury our dead and get this over with, and maybe we could move on a little bit.”

Waste and WTC
The Fresh Kills Landfill was operational from 1948 until March 2001 when it received its last large batch of waste. It was originally scheduled to shut down in December 2001, but its closure was pushed back due to the WTC attacks.
Located on the western edge of Staten Island, Fresh Kills is the world’s largest landfill, though only 45 percent of the entire site actually consists of landfill. The remaining 55 percent is creeks, wetlands and open fields, according to the Department of City Planning. At 2,315 acres, it is nearly three times larger than Central Park.

According to the Draft Master Plan for the Fresh Kills Park Transformation, which will be implemented over three, 10-year phases beginning as early as May 2008, the landfill will become a “self-sustaining ecosystem” over time that will “create significant wildlife habitat” and “provide hundreds of acres of land for active and passive recreation,” including restaurants, soccer fields, bikeways, trails, even a horse riding facility.

But for now, Fresh Kills is essentially a trash heap, and the visiting process, the Hornings say, is fairly complicated. Victims’ family members must first contact the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, which acts as a liaison to the Department of Sanitation for granting permission for visits to be conducted on particular days. The applicants must identify everyone who will be present during the visit and what his or her relation to the victim is before being escorted to the facility’s administrative offices and then driven up to the location where the remains are said to be located.

Journalists are not permitted to accompany families because the Department of Sanitation wants the “solemnity of the visit to prevail,” a spokesman says.

While Diane admits the staff has been kind and cooperative, she laments having to come to a landfill in order to visit her son’s place of rest: “When you go to a cemetery, you usually pass some lovely gates or another sort of nice entrance. We have to pass the sanitation truck storage garage, the methane recovery plant and the recycling center.”
Part of the Park Transformation plan includes an enormous earthwork monument commemorating the 9/11 recovery efforts that took place at Fresh Kills. The Hornings say such a memorial is not enough.

“The memorial is not going to be for the families, so they still won’t have a place where they can have some solace and be with their loved ones,” says Diane. “We want a cemetery in the sense that everyone else has one.”

WTC Families envisions a modest common grave––a simple memorial park with some benches, limited landscaping and individual markers for each of the victims. They’d also like a flag plaza with the flags of all 92 nations that suffered losses in the attack, and a place for a bell tower that the Franciscan Fathers have donated to them. Diane says the group does not want any kind of learning center to be included: “This is to be our cemetery.”

As for a location, they say it could be established pretty much anywhere in the metropolitan area.
“We really don’t care where it is,” says Kurt, “as long as it isn’t a garbage dump.”

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