Fate of 9/11 Attackers, Victims' Remains Still Painful for Families

Chief Leader - April 19, 2011


Almost a decade after planes hit the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the city collapsed into chaos, families of 9/11 victims are still sifting through bureaucratic wreckage, seeking justice against the attackers and a resting place for the unidentified remains of their loved ones.

These battles have centered here, where officials considered trying accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged accomplices, and where a controversial plan to inter the unidentified remains of victims in the 9/11 Museum is drawing criticism.

'There'll Never Be Closure'

Retired Fire Chief Jim Riches lost his son, 29-year-old Firefighter Jimmy Riches. Jimmy had spent eight years as a Police Officer in Brooklyn before moving to the Fire Department. Less than a year after he became a Firefighter, the attacks occurred. He was working with Engine Co. 4 in Lower Manhattan that day, and can be seen reporting for duty in the lobby before being sent up the North Tower in footage from the TV documentary "9/11."

"He went to work that day and he never came home, and there'll never be any closure," Mr. Riches said.

Al Santora and his wife, Maureen, lost their 23-year-old son Christopher Santora on 9/11. He was a Firefighter with Engine 54 in the Theater District, which lost 15 people that day. The company was assigned to the Marriott Hotel adjacent to the South Tower.

Both families went to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba in 2009 to witness the five suspects' first trial. Mr. Riches and Mr. Santora were both struck by the arrogance of the defendants.

"They stood up and said they wanted to be tried as a brotherhood; that they were proud of what they'd done," Mr. Santora said.

"You sit here and you have to watch it," Mr. Riches said. "Here's your son's murderer."

Wanted Trial Resumed Here

When that trial was stopped in November 2009, Mr. Riches wanted it moved to New York, since the crimes were committed here. "They're standing up there saying they were glad, that they were proud that they killed 3,000 Americans, and I would like Americans to see the way they behaved," he said.

But after vociferous opposition from some Lower Manhattan residents and businesses worried about disruptions that might be caused if the trial was held at the Federal courthouse here, Mayor Bloomberg's demand that the city be fully compensated for its added security costs, and angry opposition by some Republicans in Congress, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to hold the new trial before a military tribunal at Guantanamo after the National Defense Authorization Act restricted any funding to transfer detainees from the prison. "He says he has to try them down there, and I think it's time they were tried," Mr. Riches said. "They murdered my son and there's been no justice for us."

Though some human rights groups argue that a military trial will circumvent the nation's justice system, many families that lost loved ones that day simply want the trial over with. Mr. Santora believes holding the trial there is really the only option. "Just the security alone would bankrupt us," he said, adding that he felt Gitmo was incredibly secure.

'A Security Nightmare'

Russell Mercer, who lost his stepson, Firefighter Scott Kopytko, in the attacks, agreed that a trial here would be too difficult. "If they held this trial in Lower Manhattan, you know what the security nightmare would be?" he said, adding that it would cost millions of dollars. "It's not going to be a one- and two-day trial, it's going to be months and months...you'll have to block off roads, block off bridges," he continued. "Put it down at Guantanamo Bay, give them a trial and get it over with."

Mr. Kopytko was a Firefighter with Ladder 15 at the South Street Seaport. He was assigned to the South Tower and roof the day of the attacks. "We heard him on the voice recorder from the FDNY--we heard his voice there," Mr. Mercer recalled, saying that the family later had to sue the Fire Department to get the recordings. His stepson's remains, like those of 1,122 other victims, were never identified. This makes the city's plan to include unidentified remains as part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum especially upsetting to him and his wife, Joyce.

"This is the city's plan; this has nothing at all to do with us," Mr. Mercer said. "They have no right to hold those remains." He and his wife were never contacted by the city about the plan to include all unidentified remains in a restricted underground area of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. "To put it seven stories below ground is totally unacceptable," he said.

A Painful, Protracted Process

Many families have expressed outrage over the decision, including those whose loved ones were recovered. Family members said they first learned of the plan during a 2009 community meeting in St. Paul's Chapel. "Certain people--family groups--were never elected to speak for everybody," Mr. Riches said. His son's body was discovered in the rubble on March 25, 2002. Chief Riches, who had been coordinating search efforts at Ground Zero, went to the site and saw the body before another of his sons, also a Firefighter, helped pull it from the wreckage.

Even if families received remains, Mr. Riches said the process could be protracted. "People got pieces," he said. "You may have gotten 10 to15 phone calls: 'We found another piece.'''

For the Santora family, the wait for remains added insult to injury. Only one member of their son's engine company was ever found, and was identified as Jose Guadalupe. All the families from the engine company attended the funeral, still hopeful that their loved ones would also be discovered. Just days before the Santoras were to hold a memorial for their son after giving up hope of a body to bury, the Medical Examiner told them Mr. Guadalupe's body had been misidentified, and that it was actually their son. "To their credit, if they hadn't come forward, we would have never known," he said.

'Not a Moral Bone in Body'

Mr. Santora is outraged by the plan for the unidentified remains. "These people don't have a moral or sympathetic bone in their body if they think that this is OK," he said, adding that since not all of his son's body was found, some of his remains could be among those unidentified. He feels the families are the caretakers and should decide how the remains are handled.

Mr. Santora described the Memorial as essentially a cabinet behind a wall, which may still be accessed by the ME's Office if it wants to test remains in the future. "This is not entombment--this is storage, for God's sakes," he said.

Many of the families were angry enough to seek legal representation from attorney Norman Siegel, who sent a letter to the Mayor April 5. A couple of days later, Mr. Siegel said he spoke to mayoral adviser Anthony Crowell. A second conversation followed last week with Mr. Crowell and National September 11 Memorial and Museum President Joe Daniels. Mr. Siegel wouldn't comment on the content of the talks, though he believes further discussion is likely.

"I'm hopeful that they'll rethink the decision," he said.

Calls to Mr. Crowell and the Mayor's Press Office produced no response.

Not a Tourist Attraction

The letter, drafted by Mr. Siegel, Steven J. Hyman and Aimee Saginaw, stated that clients have "serious objections" to the incorporation of the remains at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is being called a "programmatic element." This terminology incensed family members like Mr. Riches, who said he shouldn't have to walk through a museum selling T-shirts and memorabilia, past throngs of tourists, to visit the remains.

The letter goes on to call the plan "inappropriate and, indeed, inconsistent with the underlying purpose of the Museum." The families believe that this decision goes back on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's (LMDC) promise to create a memorial with a repository for human remains that was "distinct from other memorial structures like a museum or visitors center," according to the letter. This was the criteria supported by many 9/11 families--not an incorporation into the museum. "Early on, we agreed that the remains would be brought back to bedrock," Mr. Santora said. Both he and Mr. Riches said they were led to believe it would be a memorial similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier--a distinct entity.

Mr. Siegel said that though there were discussions in 2002 and 2003 about bringing the unidentified remains back to Ground Zero, there's a big difference between having them in a memorial at the site and having them within the museum. "I don't think they're going to be able to persuade many people that this is somehow separate and distinct," he said. "I'm hopeful that they'll rethink it."

Want All Families Surveyed

Though the Bloomberg administration claimed that a committee of 9/11 families was consulted about the plan, the letter contends that "we believe the vast majority of the 9/11 Families are not aware of the current plan and were not consulted." It requests that the city send out letters to all families of the 2,749 victims from the World Trade Center and ask them for input on the plan. The group has offered to draft and pay postage for the letters.

Mr. Siegel said the families are giving "serious consideration" to litigation, but he's persuaded them to first seek an amicable resolution. Mr. Mercer hopes the city will "have the courtesy and respect to reach out to these 9/11 families and ask them what they want to do with these remains."

"It's totally disrespectful for the families," Mr. Riches said, calling the museum "95 percent museum and 5 percent memorial." He's also worried that they're not telling the whole story of those who died by not including their ages or ranks on the wall of names, and that the building in general is not an appropriate final resting place.

"They're going to have the pictures of the terrorists in there too," he said.