At the Hour of Our Death

It was a clear May day on Staten Island in New York, clouds high and wispy against the cerulean sky. A slight Atlantic breeze bent the scrub grass along the highway. Then the wind direction changed, and I inhaled the sickly sweet smell of decomposition. I had arrived at the Fresh Kills Landfill run by the New York City Department of Sanitation—the mass grave for hundreds of victims of 9/11.

“It’s a pretty formidable place,” Diane Horning told me as we looked across nearly 2,200 acres of prettied-up garbage dump, approximately 40 acres of which holds refuse from the World Trade Center. “You can’t bring the elderly. You can’t bring young children. There’s no place to put flowers.”

Diane and her husband, Kurt, had met me at the landfill to talk about the World Trade Center Families for a Proper Burial.

The Horning’s 26-year-old son, Matthew, was killed on Sept. 11. He worked for the Marsh & McLennan insurance company on the 95th floor of the north tower at the World Trade Center. O f the 295 Marsh & McLennan employees killed that day, many have had no remains found. Of the 2,749 people killed at the Trade Center, more than 40 percent lack any identified remains.

In 2003, Diane Horning founded World Trade Center Families for a Proper Burial with Arlene and Arthur Russo, whose son Wayne had also died. The organization’s express purpose is to retrieve the remains of the 9/11 victims in the Fresh Kills Landfill and give them a proper burial. They represent about 1,000 families.

The proper burial of the dead has been called “the last office of humanity.” The 15th-century poet-philosopher Giambattista Vico identified it as among the three characteristics, along with religion and marriage, of a civilized society. “[From] these three institutions are the origin of all civilizations and therefore they must be most devoutly guarded by all,” Vico wrote, “so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness.”

IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING the collapse of the Twin Towers, firefighters and others began the painstaking task of recovering the remains of their lost comrades and hundreds of civilians using a “hand and shovel” digging method. To find and return remains to family members for proper burial was a matter of honor, dignity, and respect for the dead. But political expediency took precedence over basic human decency. “[Then-mayor Rudy] Giuliani wanted to make sure that the Trade Towers were at ground level before he left office,” Kurt Horning told me, “which is why they went to the ‘scoop and dump’ method once they recovered the gold.”

According to The London Times, a billion dollar cache of gold and other precious metals had been buried beneath the Trade Center. “The Comex metals trading division of the New York Mercantile Exchange kept 3,800 gold bars … worth more than $100 million” in vaults in the basement of one of the WTC buildings, reported the Times. Comex also held almost $220 million worth of other companies’ gold and more than $430 million worth of silver.

On Oct. 30, 2001, workers at Ground Zero unearthed the cache. With more than 100 heavily armed federal agents standing guard, police and firefighters were redeployed from recovery efforts to load up armored trucks with the treasure. Within hours of finding the gold, Giuliani stopped the recovery effort and pulled workers off the pile.

The “scoop and dump” method was for clearing the site, not recovering the dead. Earthmovers and steam shovels scooped up debris at Ground Zero and dumped it in trucks that took it to barges. It was floated up the Arthur Kill tidal strait and then trucked to the Fresh Kills Landfill to be sifted for remains and personal effects. According to the sworn testimony of workers there, whole bodies were still in the wreckage. Taylor Recycling’s site supervisor for the Fresh Kills sifting job, Eric Beck, testified in conjunction with a law suit the World Trade Center Families have brought against the city of New York, “I vividly remember our finding a man’s full chest and the full body of a man still dressed in a suit.” Beck also testified that Department of Sanitation workers were told to take the fines (the sifted, screened, and washed soil)—in effect the cremated remains of WTC victims—and use them to pave roads and fill in pot holes.

“Matthew’s wallet and a piece of his occipital bone have been recovered from the debris brought from the WTC to the Fresh Kills Refuse Site,” Diane stated in her law suit testimony, “and have been returned to us. I became a plaintiff in this law suit, in order to have Matthew’s remains accorded a proper and decent burial in a place of honor and respect consistent with the free exercise of his and my religion, so that his final resting place is not a landfill used as a garbage dump.”

THE NEW YORK CITY mayor’s office has repeatedly stated that the WTC debris brought to Fresh Kills was thoroughly sifted down to a quarter inch and that every effort was made to recover any evidence of personal items or human remains and to keep the WTC material separate from the household garbage. In 2001, several WTC victims’ families were contacted by the FBI and told that they could view the sifting operation at Fresh Kills. Diane asked if she could have some of the fines for burial when operations were completed. In July 2002, when it was announced that the sifting was finished, Diane called the mayor’s office to reiterate her request. “I was told that they didn’t know what I was talking about. That began my effort to find out what was going on. Where was this material?”

Diane and Kurt were finally allowed onto the area of WTC debris at Fresh Kills to view the soil that had been supposedly sifted down to a quarter of an inch. They found massive sections of blistered steel, huge lengths of rebar, and hundreds of smaller items. Kurt recalled, “There was a new level of dirt a foot high. I asked them, ‘You removed all the debris, the tires, the broken glass, the clothing, the carpeting?’ They said, ‘Oh no, we didn’t remove anything. We are just covering it up.’”

Six years later soil erosion continues to push bones to the surface. More often, the forces of water, wind, and gravity expose shoes, watches, credit cards, and jewelry. “We found a Bible,” said Kurt. “We found a doll.”

“This is a landfill that never had a liner,” said Diane. “It was established before they needed to have liners and so it’s just sort of percolating down into the garbage. That’s so distressing to us. They didn’t even bother to put a liner down on top of the household garbage.

“Originally, all we wanted was the fines,” Diane continued. “We thought that they had honestly sifted it all down and if we could just have those fines, then we’d be satisfied. But when we saw what was going on down at Ground Zero, where they’ve now found over 1,500 pieces of human remains since the recovery process ended that had been overlooked or deliberately built on, we wanted more than just the fines. We are saying to the city that they can dig everything out and put it all together in a new location that doesn’t have garbage under it, or they can re-sift it and give us the results of the siftings. We are willing to do it either way.”

As I walked through the debris with the Hornings, I found wall tile, bits of china, parts of a tennis shoe, and a section of marble that could have come from a church altar or a high-end corporate office. According to a chart compiled by the Department of Sanitation, more than 200,000 tons of debris that arrived at Fresh Kills from the WTC in the first 32 days is unaccounted for. It wasn’t sifted. It wasn’t tracked. It was dumped and covered over.

“We began to realize that human remains were in the debris when human body parts began to be found in the debris that had been sifted,” testified sanitation worker Theodore Feaser, “and when the sifted and bulldozed debris was suddenly subjected to droves of seagulls that swooped down, attracted by the human body parts contained therein.”

While USA Toda y touts former mayor Giuliani as the “hero of 9/11,” the real heroes of Sept. 11—the first responders and victims’ families—are dismayed and angered at Giuliani’s disregard for the dead.

“We have remains of dead heroes out at the garbage dump because of Giuliani and his administration,” said New York City Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Riches, who lost a son in the Towers. “They are still there today, and they won’t remove them.”

Diane Horning is disgusted. “Now we’ve got people like Rudy Giuliani who ordered all this nonsense running for president! I’m absolutely dumbfounded. This is a man whose claim to fame was that he’s the one who let them use my son as pothole fill. Is this what our nation has become?”

Diane Horning, a Roman Catholic, has turned to the church for help. Catholics consider the proper burial of the dead as “a corporal work of mercy” and believe in the inherent dignity of the human person and the resurrection of the body. Caring for the body even in death “grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the church now commends to the care of God,” according to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Sadly, when Horning brought her cause to Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, she says he refused to meet with her. Horning then went to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., and he turned her away, telling her to speak with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.

“ The bishops told us that it was a local issue and they don’t get involved in politics,” reported Horning. “I’m just absolutely shocked that they would tell me that they don’t get involved in politics. Where were you all with Terri Schiavo? Where are you now when they are asking Roman Catholic hospitals to give out birth control after rape? Don’t tell me that you don’t get involved with political issues that are faith-related? You do! And if this is a tenet of the faith—the proper burial of the dead—then where are you?”

Local churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have helped the WTC Families for a Proper Burial in small ways through supporting a petition drive, attending meetings, and writing to local leaders. Archbishop John Myers of Newark has expressed general support. But, overall, national religious leadership has been silent on this issue.

“We’re just floored that the clergy is no where on this,” Diane said. “I keep hearing that these things take time … as I watch my son’s remains wash into the Arthur Kill. I don’t understand how much time it’s supposed to take.

“A grief deferred is a very dangerous thing. Things keep getting taken from me. My son was taken from me. I think my country was taken from me. My faith has been taken from me. If it weren’t for the wonderful people I’ve been meeting, especially those who have suffered loss, I don’t know where I’d be.”

THEN THERE IS the issue of money. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Well, how much would [re-sifting] cost?’” said Diane. “I have to say back, What difference does that make? That’s like saying, This child is ill but the medical bills are going to be a certain amount of money, so forget it, let her die. But I did try to find out how much the federal government paid for the 9/11 clean up. FEMA allotted $125 million for the clean up at this dump site. They spent $67 million. So I called FEMA and I asked, ‘Are these figures accurate?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ So I asked, ‘What happened to the rest of it? Where is it?’ They said, ‘Well….it’s not like it’s held in escrow someplace.’

“So the city took half of the money that FEMA gave them. They got their work done under budget in less time than they had allotted. Then they reapportioned the rest of that money to pay for straight-time salaries and security—neither of which FEMA ever pays for. So the city won the lottery!”

Eric Beck, the Taylor Recycling site supervisor at Fresh Kills, confirmed the timeline in his court statement. “I was told that the recovery job at Fresh Kills would be a two-year project. We finished in 11 and a half months.”

As Diane asserts, “For the city to say now that it would be too costly to properly bury our dead, I have to say back to them that the money was there. But you chose to use it some other way. And you had no right to do that. They came in under budget and under their funding and now body parts are being found all over Ground Zero. … Rudy Giuliani wanted to look like the take-charge guy who got it done fast.”

She muses on the deeply personal consequences of these bureaucratic and political decisions. “I do try when I come here to say prayers. We bring flowers. Of course, there’s no place to put them, but we bring them. I try to have some kind of community with my son here. But I’m not able to do it. Once in awhile you’ll get some little wildflowers here and that’s nice. But the bottom line is that there’s garbage under him. I just don’t think a civilized society does that.”

LISTENING TO DIANE HORNING calls to mind the story of Rizpah in 2 Samuel. Rizpah kept vigil for months over the exposed bodies of her two sons whom King David, for political reasons, had handed over to be killed. “She allowed no bird to set upon them by day nor any wild beast by night” (21:10). Eventually, Rizpah’s campaign forced David to give her sons, and the others killed with them, a proper burial.

Catholic catechism teaches that “the body that lies in death recalls the personal story of faith, the past relationships, and the continued spiritual presence of the deceased person. This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. Thi s is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.”

Sept.11 has been excessively sentimentalized on one hand, which prevents genuine grieving and authentic resurrection. On the other hand, there is the obscenity of the Fresh Kills landfill where the bodies are kept hidden—because to look at them truthfully may raise questions about America’s existential innocence.

I look over the piles of rocks used at the dump site to fill in erosion holes. “It looks to me like a cairn,” says Diane, “like an ancient cairn.” Together, we pray the Lord’s Prayer and set flowers against a piece of metal jutting from the ground. “The Franciscan priests have forged a beautiful bell for us,” Diane tells me. “It’s called The Bell for the Unforgotten. I would love to have a bell tower where we could put it. Just something very simple. A place where we could remember Matthew.”

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. For more on this story, please visit and

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