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The disposal of human remains from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, including the incineration and dumping of some portions in a landfill, was based on high-level Pentagon instructions, the Air Force's top general said Wednesday.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told a group of reporters that the actions taken by the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware were based on written guidance issued in March 2002 by David Chu, who was the Pentagon personnel chief under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Chu did not specifically mention dumping incinerated residue of 9/11 remains in a landfill, but his words might have been interpreted to allow that final step.
The Pentagon released a copy of the Chu memo, which was addressed to Thomas White, the Army's top civilian official at the time. The Army oversaw the Air Force's mortuary activities at Dover and elsewhere.
Schwartz said he only became aware on Tuesday of the fact that some portions of those remains were dumped in a landfill.
"To the best of our knowledge at this moment in time, we followed those disposition instructions" from Chu, Schwartz said. He added that "there is a requirement for us to validate that that is the case."
The Chu guidance did not mention disposing of any remains in a landfill. It said unidentifiable remains that were mixed with fragments of "non-biological material" from the attack site were to be "treated in the same manner as any biological tissue removed for surgical or diagnostic purposes (i.e. disposition by incineration)."
That appears to leave open the question of whether disposal in a landfill was permitted.
The disposal issue came to light Tuesday when the head of an independent panel, retired Gen. John Abizaid, released a report that assessed management problems at the Dover mortuary. His work was triggered by revelations last fall about the mishandling of remains of American war dead at Dover in 2010.
The Abizaid report mentioned in passing that the practice of dumping of some portions of remains in a landfill began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The report said several portions of unidentifiable remains from the Pentagon attack and the site of the hijacked plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pa., were cremated, incinerated and dumped in a landfill.
Asked about the Abizaid report on Tuesday shortly after its public release, Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said it was the first time they had heard of 9/11 remains being disposed of in a landfill.
At a previously scheduled breakfast interview with reporters Wednesday, Schwartz said the Air Force overnight had unearthed the Chu memo. He also said the Air Force determined that no remains from the Shanksville site were handled by the Dover mortuary, "as best we can tell." He added that the Air Force would endeavor to "nail down" with certainty that Dover dealt only with remains from the Pentagon attack.
Schwartz said it was still unclear how many remains portions from the Pentagon were incinerated and dumped in a landfill.
In the case of 9/11 victims, some remains from the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the first anniversary of the attacks. Three caskets of unidentified remains from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pa., were buried there last September.
Rubble from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan was sorted at a former Staten Island landfill, and many families of victims have claimed that granules of remains were buried there after the operation concluded.
Al Santora, whose firefighter son, Christopher, died in the trade center, was originally part of a group of families who sued to re-open the Staten Island landfill, Fresh Kills, to resift the material there for remains.
Santora said the Pentagon discovery was "awful."
"If you had an animal and it died, and you threw it in the garbage, you could get fined and probably go to jail," he said. "And yet you could have human remains in a garbage dump that everybody knows about, and nobody's doing anything about it."
Despite more than 10 years passing since the attacks, forensic scientists at the medical examiner's office in New York have still been able to make identifications with remains collected long ago. A victim who worked in the south tower had a piece of her remains identified just this month.