The official procession moved slowly through Manhattan early Saturday, blinking red lights illuminating streets barely awake. It carried the remains of more than 1,100 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, whose resting place will be back at ground zero.
The decision to shift the thousands of bags of pulverized bone and other remains back to the place where the victims died closes, at least temporarily, one of the most wrenching debates arising from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers: how to handle fragments of humanity found there but never positively linked to individual victims.
About a dozen 9/11 family members staged a protest as the three flag-draped containers were moved from the back of vehicles into a repository at ground zero, in the same building as the 9/11 Memorial Museum scheduled to open May 21.
"A museum is not a cemetery," read one protester's sign.
Until Saturday, the more than 7,900 little bags containing remains had been housed at the office of the city’s chief medical examiner, in a bland office building about five miles from ground zero. There, forensic experts have been working to give names to all the remains, making slow but steady progress.
In the last year, the number of victims positively identified through DNA analysis has risen by four. But 41% of the World Trade Center’s 2,753 victims have not been tied to any remains, leaving many family members without a trace of their loved ones.
City officials say the effort to identify victims will continue, but the remains will be housed on "sacred ground," 70 feet below bedrock, adjacent to the museum.
“It’s respectful,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week of the move, which was decided by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in conjunction with some 9/11 families and other officials.
“A lot of family members have agreed that this is the right approach," De Blasio said. "I’m confident this is being done respectfully after a lot of consultation with family members, and in a way that really dignifies this moment and the sacred ground we’re discussing.”
The medical examiner’s office has assured family members that the remains will not be part of the museum's exhibit and that their lost relatives’ bones will not be subjected to ghoulish gawking by strangers.
The 2,500-square-foot repository for the remains sits between the footprints of the fallen twin towers, and neither the medical examiner’s office space in it nor a private reflection room for family members is accessible to the public, the office said in a statement.
“The repository provides a dignified and reverential setting for the remains to repose – temporarily or in perpetuity – as the work to identify the 9/11 victims continues,” it said.
But that has not alleviated the anger of some family members. About a dozen of them gathered at ground zero to register their disapproval as police vans streamed into sight and the transfer began.
Many object to the placement of remains so far below ground, saying the area is subject to floods. They also say that the city did not do enough to listen to their alternative ideas.
"We thought there would be some sort of tomb or memorial put there," said Eileen Walsh, whose son, Michael Brennan, was a firefighter killed on 9/11.
"We were never given the opportunity to say that we did not want them in a museum," said Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother, firefighter Sean Tallon, died in the attacks.
But city officials say the plan, developed during the former mayor's administration after consultation with a panel that includes 9/11 family members, was the best one under the circumstances. They also note that some family members who supported the idea opted to have their relatives' identified remains included with those placed at ground zero.
While no DNA testing will be conducted at the ground zero repository, they said they are hopeful developments in forensic technology will ensure future identifications for still-grieving relatives.