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Officials wanted more searching for body parts at the World Trade Center site
NEW YORK -- As the city agency overseeing the removal of the World Trade Center rubble was wrapping up its work in 2002, several officials handling the painstaking recovery of human remains warned that things were moving too fast.
They believed that more pieces of the 2,749 dead could be found, and that the city shouldn't be rushing such an important task. But they were overruled, two of those officials said this week.
Over the past few days, dozens of bones have been discovered in underground passages at ground zero, more than five years after the tragedy.
"I knew that this was going to happen -- they really just wanted us out of there," said retired Lt. John McArdle, the police department's ground zero commander. "There was not a good exit strategy for some of these places, and if there was, it was poorly done."
A utility crew stumbled upon body parts last week in an abandoned manhole along the edge of the site, and forensic experts have since dug down and found more than 100 bones and fragments from skulls, ribs, arms, legs, feet and hands.
The discoveries have angered and saddened relatives of the Sept. 11, 2001, victims. Of the 2,749 people who were killed that day, the remains of some 1,150 have not been found. That means that families of 40 percent of the victims have nothing -- not a sliver of a bone -- left of their loved ones.
The notion that rescue workers were rebuffed by a city eager to finish the job could help shed light on why the remains are being discovered only now. The area where bones are being found is one where officials had raised objections.
The officials said they repeatedly aired their concerns to the agency in charge, the Department of Design and Construction, which was later praised for its speedy, under-budget cleanup of 1.5 million tons of trade center debris.
"The desire was driven by one thing, and that was, 'Get it done,'" said another official who protested, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the work publicly. "Many a time the issue was raised about how fast it was going and things were being missed."
Deputy mayor Ed Skyler, who is overseeing the renewed search, said a review of such issues would be premature, but noted that the fire department was designated as the lead agency for finding remains, and that the design department proceeded with its work only when the FDNY gave the go-ahead.
According to the two officials, FDNY rescue workers were among those who resisted the Department of Design and Construction. However, fire department spokesman Frank Gribbon said Monday that reports of objections were exaggerated. Chief of department Sal Cassano said in a statement that the FDNY "had final sign-off on areas where the recovery effort was deemed complete, and at no time was pressured to say otherwise."
Memos obtained by the AP show that the design department acknowledged at least some of the objections in the spring of 2002, but was concerned about "delaying the sign-off."
After the twin 110-story towers collapsed, police and fire officials led the backbreaking search for bodies while the Department of Design and Construction was assigned to excavate the debris, which stood 10 stories high at the start. The agency, staffed by engineers, architects and construction professionals, specializes in engineering and construction projects, including emergency debris removal.
Each day, the design department convened planning meetings with all the parties involved, including engineers, emergency responders and a range of other city agencies.
The project finished months ahead of city officials' yearlong prediction, and cost about $750 million -- just a fraction of the initial multibillion-dollar estimate. But the design department was sometimes at odds with the rescue workers, who frequently needed to shut down or pause the operation as they recovered bodies.
"It went from a rescue to a recovery to a construction project," McArdle said. "There came a point in time when they said, 'We gotta try to wrap this up,' and they tried to expedite it as much as possible, and they jumped the gun, and now you have all of these families hurt and they're finding all these body parts."
Kurt Horning, who lost his son Matthew in the attack, said Monday he was glad to hear others saying what families believed for years.
"The foot soldiers did everything they could, we know that -- we have always felt this was a rush job by the administration and the suits," he said.
Particular disagreements arose as the design department was preparing to turn over the site -- which belongs to the bistate agency known as the Port Authority. According to people involved in the process, the design department had created a grid map and asked those leading the remains recovery to walk through each area, and sign off, square by square.
Some refused to OK the sign-off, and at least one official recommended a widespread powerwashing on parts of the seven-story pit, so that the water could wash down into the nooks and crannies, catching the smallest pieces of remains. Workers would then spread out the sludge, let it dry, and comb for bone and tissue fragments.
According to a memo from Design and Construction Department official Bruce Rottner, extra requests "would hamper the work of the ... transition team, potentially delaying the sign-off by two weeks."
Matthew Monahan, department spokesman, said the intent of that correspondence did not deal with human remains specifically, but rather the agency's overall effort to clean up the site and eliminate safety hazards in preparation for turning it over the Port Authority.
A powerwashing would not necessarily have reached the 12 subterranean cavities now being opened and picked through this week by teams of forensic anthropologists. But Skyler said there may be many more underground areas to examine.
All involved agencies have also been asked to go back and recall how and when they inspected the buildings on the site's outskirts. Hundreds of bone fragments were recently found on the roof of a skyscraper that had been closed since the attack.
None of the newly unearthed bones has been identified, but the medical examiner's office has DNA profiles of the victims on file and is working to match the remains. Thousands of the 20,000 pieces recovered during the main excavation still have not yielded matches.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday that the cleanup was "a heroic job ... by people who really dedicated themselves -- firefighters who had lost sons and brothers, construction workers who worked in difficult conditions where they had lots of heavy machinery and there was a lot of pressure to do things quickly."
He added: "And I think, on balance, they did a magnificent job."