Sept. 11 Remains Disposed as Waste Instead of Sea Burial

The military debated whether to hold a burial at sea for human body parts from the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon before sending them to a landfill as medical waste, according to Defense Department documents.

The documents were released to answer questions about the disposal of Sept. 11 remains that surfaced during a review of how the military’s Dover mortuary in Delaware handled troops who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After being cremated, some body parts from the troops and the Sept. 11 attack were burned again and ended up in a landfill.

U.S. Air Force officials managing the Dover Port Mortuary discussed whether a batch of so-called Group F bio-waste from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon should be scattered at sea, according to heavily redacted e-mails and documents the military released yesterday showing the time line of decisions at Dover from May 1990 to Feb. 12. The material included 1,321 unidentifiable fragments of human remains, according to the documents.

The mortuary staff sorted the matter into six groups, with the last one containing “fragmented material that could not be further identified” because it included a mix of remains from victims, terrorists and other “biological material,” Jo Ann Rooney, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said yesterday at a Pentagon news conference.

Asked to describe the biological material, Rooney said “it could have been human, something from someone’s lunch and anything of biological nature.”

‘A Chaplain Present’

A defense official in an Aug. 6, 2002, e-mail wrote an Air Force colonel seeking permission to scatter material from the batch at sea and “perhaps even have a chaplain present.” Instead, the U.S. Army Personnel Command, which had responsibility for Dover, directed the mortuary to treat the material as “normal waste,” according to documents, in which the names of officials were blacked out.

The practice of sending some unidentified human remains to landfills ended in 2008. They are now put in urns and buried at sea.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta created in November a panel, led by retired General John Abizaid, to review the handling of human remains at the Dover mortuary, the primary U.S. entry point for the remains of troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panetta called for the examination after reports that the Air Force had mishandled and lost remains of some military personnel.

Brief Reference

In a brief reference in a Feb. 28 report, the Abizaid panel disclosed that cremated body parts from some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks were disposed of in a landfill by a contractor to the military. In response, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said they hadn’t been aware that happened.

The Air Force has started disciplinary proceedings against the former commander of the mortuary, Colonel Robert Edmondson, and his deputy for mishandling soldiers’ body parts.

Rooney met families of Sept. 11 victims yesterday to brief them on the details of the review, which found that “their loved ones were treated with the care, dignity and respect,” Rooney said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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