By Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times
WASHINGTON — The mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware disposed of body parts of some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by burning them and dumping the ashes in a landfill, an independent panel said in a report to the Pentagon released on Tuesday.
The startling new disclosure was the latest to tarnish the reputation of Dover, hallowed ground for the military and the entry point for the nation’s war dead, and is likely to create further anguish among families of the Sept. 11 victims.
Mortuary officials had already been under fire for what the Air Force termed “gross mismanagement” for losing the body parts of two service members in 2009, repeated failures of command, doing little to change sloppy practices and sawing off the protruding arm bone of a dead Marine without informing his family.
The method of disposal of the Sept. 11 body parts was limited to what the report said were “several portions of remains” that could not be identified from the attack on the Pentagon and the crash site in Shanksville, Pa. The report said the remains were cremated and placed in containers provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor, which then incinerated them and put them in the landfill.
Air Force officials said they could not confirm all the information about the Sept. 11 remains and were trying to clarify details on Tuesday night.
Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for the families of United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, said in a statement Tuesday night: “This is impossible to believe. The remains from the Flight 93 crash were under the care and control of the great Somerset County coroner, Wallace Miller. He has said that no remains were sent to Dover.”
The practice of landfill disposal was also used for some unidentified remains of war dead, a fact first disclosed late last year. The practice has since been stopped and the ashes are now put in urns and buried at sea.
The review, which was ordered by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta after the problems with lost body parts were made public last fall, indicates that problems at the mortuary were more extensive and go back further than previously known.
It mentions but does not elaborate on a 2005 internal mortuary investigation that found that “human remains were misrouted in a fashion constituting dereliction of duty,” a 2009 fraud investigation that is still open and a 2008 settlement of $25,000 paid to a Marine spouse for “mental anguish and medical costs due to the loss of personal effects.”
John P. Abizaid, the retired general who led the panel, acknowledged the problems. “I will readily admit that there were a series of investigations that took place within the mortuary,” he said, adding that “corrective actions were not taken” as a result of the inquiries.
General Abizaid, a former commander of American forces in the Middle East, concluded that the mortuary’s leadership at the time was a “dysfunctional, isolated chain of command.”
General Abizaid said he did not know how many remains of the Sept. 11 victims passed through Dover. Although the mortuary is primarily for war dead, it has also handled the remains of civilians in large catastrophes.
The disclosure about the Sept. 11 remains was embedded deep in the panel’s report, in a few paragraphs on Page 6 and then in two brief mentions in the appendix. The two top Air Force officials insisted Tuesday that they were taken by surprise by the revelation and, like General Abizaid, offered no additional details.
“You got the report before we did,” the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, told reporters in the Pentagon briefing room as he stood next to the secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, after both had returned from a Congressional hearing. “We’ve both been on Capitol Hill for the last four hours. Allow us at least the opportunity to go through the report ourselves.”
For his part, General Abizaid said the focus of his report was not investigating the past but offering recommendations for the future. He called for more oversight, training and inspections at Dover, and said improvements at the mortuary, which has handled the remains of thousands of military men and women over a decade of war, were already under way. He also praised the new mortuary leadership.
Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, said Tuesday that he had been “appalled” to learn last year that the mortuary had put the remains of some service members in a landfill. Mr. Holt, who has a constituent whose husband’s remains were disposed of in a landfill, added, “I suspected, as General Abizaid’s panel has now confirmed, that these practices had been going on for many years.”
The Air Force in the meantime put off a decision until mid-March on whether three top mortuary officials should have been fired for the problems at Dover.
Last fall Col. Robert H. Edmondson, who commanded the mortuary at the time the body parts were lost, received a letter of reprimand, effectively ending any further promotions. Trevor Dean, Colonel Edmondson’s former deputy, and Quinton R. Keel, the former mortuary director, both civilians who were in their jobs when the body parts were lost, were demoted and moved to lesser jobs at Dover. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates whistle-blowers’ complaints, said last fall that the three should have been dismissed.
In a letter to the White House, Carolyn N. Lerner, the head of the office, said that Mr. Keel and Mr. Dean had exhibited a pattern of “negligence, misconduct and dishonesty” and that there had been a “failure of leadership” by Colonel Edmondson.
Last month, the Office of Special Counsel released another report saying mortuary officials — it did not name them — had retaliated against four employees after the employees raised concerns about the mishandling of service members’ remains.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 29, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Air Force Mortuary Disposed Of 9/11 Remains in Landfill.