Landfill got some 9/11 remains

A report said they were partial remains that couldn't be identified from the Pentagon attack and Pa. crash site.

Posted: February 29, 2012

WASHINGTON - Some cremated remains of people who were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks were disposed of in a landfill, the Pentagon revealed Tuesday, tracing the problems with the handling of remains at Dover Air Force Base back more than a decade.

A report by a panel that was tasked with reviewing procedures at Dover described "gross mismanagement" at the mortuary in Delaware where the nation's war dead arrive, including the mishandling of remains from an unknown number of victims of the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

Remains that could not be identified or tested were cremated, the report said, and "then placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor." Asked to provide further details, retired Gen. John Abizaid, who led the panel, testily said: "You'll have to ask the question elsewhere."

The panel was formed after revelations last fall that similar practices had been followed for some of the unidentified remains of American war dead. Pentagon officials said Tuesday's report was the first time they had learned of the improper disposal of the remains of 9/11 victims.

Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of the jet that the hijackers steered into the Pentagon, said she was confused by the report. She said she attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at which unidentified 9/11 remains were buried in an engraved casket.

"They were treated with great respect and great ceremony," Burlingame said. "The Department of Defense was exceedingly sensitive and treated those unidentified remains with great respect. ... I would want to know more."

The U.S. military has said the handling of its war dead is a sacred responsibility, but the panel's report found that Pentagon leadership "failed to recognize and address repeated issues that violated the standard of care." It made 20 recommendations for improving practices at Dover, including more training for mortuary workers and appointing a general to be responsible for it.

The report detailed several cases of mishandled remains or personal effects at the base. In 2006, the partial remains of four Navy personnel who had died in a training plane crash were cremated and disposed of in a landfill. In January 2008, a Marine's widow received a $25,000 payout for "mental anguish" when her husband's personal effects were disposed of accidentally.

The panel also recommended that the military no longer perform full-body cremations. "We think that it's a bad idea for the Department of Defense to be in the cremation business," Abizaid said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the bodies of at least 6,000 fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have been transported to Dover Air Force Base.

Investigations into Dover began after whistle-blowers reported the mishandling of the remains of troops who had been killed in the wars. The Air Force conducted an 18-month probe, concluding last fall that the partial remains of 274 service members had been incinerated and disposed of in a landfill from 2003 to 2008, when the Air Force said it had made reforms.

Last year, an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, found "a pattern of the Air Force's failure to acknowledge culpability" for mishandled and lost remains. Earlier this year, a second report by the agency showed that some mortuary employees had retaliated against whistle-blowers by suspending them from work.

After the Air Force and Office of Special Counsel findings, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta appointed Abizaid to lead the review. Panetta; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and senior leaders of the Army and Air Force were briefed about the report Monday, officials said. Panetta ordered Dempsey to implement Abizaid's recommendations.

The Pentagon has disciplined three senior officials so far.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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