Sept. 11 victims' relatives who say a museum is no place to put unidentified victims' remains went to court Wednesday to press for access to a city-maintained list of the next of kin for all the nearly 2,800 people killed at the World Trade Center, information the relatives say they need to gauge opinion on the issue.
In a hearing that was technically about public-records law but overlaid with an emotionally charged debate over the future of 9,000 pieces of unidentified remains, relatives' lawyers said they needed the list to poll families. But a city lawyer said releasing it would invade the privacy of people whose identities became the government's business only through tragedy.
A judge didn't immediately rule or say when she would.
The case is a byproduct of a bitter disagreement between some victims' relatives and city officials, the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum and, indeed, some other victims' relatives over the unidentified remains. Remains have never been identified for more than 1,100 victims.
The 17 relatives who are suing oppose a plan to put the unidentified remains 70 feet underground in the subterranean museum, behind a wall inscribed with a quote from Virgil. The remains wouldn't be visible to the public, and a private room next to the repository would be set aside for families.
The relatives who object want the remains to be in a separate space on the memorial plaza above. They see the nonprofit museum as commercially minded, and they're put off by the idea of paying respects in a place that could include a gift shop and may ask visitors _ though not families _ for an admission fee of up to $20.
"It would be much more respectful if it was something that was on the plaza level. ... To us, now it's tantamount to an attraction in a museum," says Fire Department Lt. Jim McCaffrey, who lost his brother-in-law, Battalion Chief Orio Palmer. McCaffrey was among about a half-dozen victims' relatives who were in the courtroom audience Wednesday, some wearing photographs and pins with their loved ones' names and images.
The city and memorial foundation _ which has some victims' relatives on its board _ have said they conducted an extensive effort to include families in planning, family members were OK'd the arrangement and the plan has been known for years. They point to various plans, mailings and other documents dating back to 2004.
But those who are suing they were never consulted about the idea of placing the remains underground in the museum, saying plans referred only broadly to putting remains at the memorial.
"If it was well-known, we wouldn't be here today," the families' lawyer, Norman Siegel, told the judge Wednesday. "And that's the underlying issue here: Who decides where the remains will go? Does the government decide, or do the families decide," he asked, or what obligations does the government have to consult families?
The families have sued the city, proposing that the list be released to a retired judge. He would send out a letter explaining the plan and asking for opinions to the next of kin of the 2,752 trade center victims.
The city argued that under public-records law, the list would have to be released publicly if it were released at all, and that would invade victims' families' privacy and subject them to a deluge of unwanted solicitations and communications.
"The names and addresses of 9/11 victims' family members is an amalgamation of experiences that are intensely private," Thaddeus Hackworth, a city lawyer, told the judge. The fact that the relatives were caught up in the terrorist attacks "should not also mean that these individuals have given up all rights to privacy," he said.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern asked whether the relatives and city might be able to work something out.
"Why would the city not want to give notice to family members about what's going to happen with the remains?" she asked.
At the other sites where hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, the placement of unidentified remains has been resolved.
Three caskets of unidentified remains from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pa., were buried there Monday. Unidentified remains from the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the first anniversary of the attacks.
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