WASHINGTON – The summer after the 9-11 attacks, Air Force personnel pondered whether to ceremonially disperse ashes of unidentified biological remains from the Pentagon crash site at sea, or to dispose of them as waste.
In a report released in February, an investigation headed by retired Army Gen. John Abizaid concluded there had been a breakdown of procedures and command authority at the Dover Port Mortuary, leading to improper handling of servicemembers’ remains.
“Debate raged throughout the department” about what to do with the biological material in questions, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness Joanne Rooney said Friday.
There was no assurance the biological material was not from the bodies of terrorists, or even that it was human, she said. The material could have included “something from someone’s lunch,” Rooney said.
The documents released Friday encapsulate some of those debates. In a heavily redacted email string, an unidentified civilian at Dover Air Base relays a recommendation from a colonel that incinerated remains be dispersed at sea, adding that “it may be appropriate for us to witness and perhaps have a chaplain present.”
But in a subsequent email, dated Aug. 7, an unidentified correspondent declares: “Spoke with PERSCOM Mortuary Affairs and we are in complete agreement. We disposed medical waste materials.” The writer adds that the contractor incinerated the unidentified biological portions should not return the ashes to the military.
“Powder and ashes from the incineration of the material and the containers that were used for the burning is to be disposed of as normal waste,” the email reads. “We shouldn’t attempt to spread the residue at sea, as it could possible (sic) send a message to the next of kins (sic) that we are disposing of human remains, and that is not the case.
“Please have the contractor responsible for the incineration ‘immediately’ dispose of all residual materials.”
In a later email Aug. 7, an unidentified Air Force colonel acquiesces with seeming discomfort.
“My point, as you are aware, is that Group F [a set of material including biological material found in the Pentagon crash site] is not your normal set of medical waste,” according to the email. But, it added, “Consider it done.”
Beginning in 2008, officials say the Air Force began disposing of unidentified portions of remains at sea, as recommended in the 2002 emails.
Rooney stressed that the identifiable remains of 9-11 victims were treated properly.
“The victims deserved the utmost care, dignity and respect with regard to their treatment,” Rooney said. “That’s what they and their families received.”