Partial remains of several 9/1 1 victims were incinerated by a military contractor and sent to a landfill, a government report said Tuesday in the latest of a series of revelations about the Pentagon's main mortuary for war dead.
The surprise disclosure was mentioned briefly, with little detail, in a report by an independent panel that studied underlying management flaws at Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Dover, Del. A 2011 probe found "gross mismanagement" there, but until Tuesday there had been no mention of Dover's role in handling 9/1 1 victims' remains.
Air Force leaders, asked about the 9/1 1 matter at a news conference, said they had been unaware of it until the head of the independent panel, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, held a Pentagon news conference earlier Tuesday to explain his panel's findings.
"This is new information to me," Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said.
He said it was unclear whether the matter would be investigated further.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said Panetta "never would have supported" the disposal of remains in a landfill. "He understands why families would have serious concerns about such a policy," he said.
Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, the airline pilot of the hijacked plane that was driven into the Pentagon by terrorists, said she was confused by the report. She said she attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at which unidentified 9/1 1 remains were buried in an engraved casket.
"They were treated with great respect and great ceremony," Burlingame said. "The Department of Defense was exceedingly sensitive and treated those unidentified remains with great respect I would want to know more."
The Abizaid report primarily focused on management reforms to a "dysfunctional, isolated" Dover mortuary chain of command. It cited the 9/1 1 matter while explaining the history of problems at Dover that came to light last year through complaints from whistle-blowers who revealed the mishandling of war remains.
The practice at Dover of cremating partial remains and sending them to a landfill began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the report said, "when several portions of remains from the Pentagon attack and the Shanksville, Pa., crash site could not be tested or identified."
The terrorist-hijacked airliner that slammed into the west side of the Pentagon killed 184 people, and the hijacked plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville killed 40.
In Pennsylvania, Somerset County coroner Wallace Miller said in an interview Tuesday that he was surprised that remains from Flight 93 might be involved in the new Pentagon report. "I wouldn't know how there would be any possibility how any remains would get to Dover," Miller said.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has closely followed the Dover scandal, said the Pentagon has yet to fully explain the practice of disposing of partial remains in landfills.
"The Pentagon must provide absolute clarity and accountability as to what human remains were dishonored in this manner, and it must take far more aggressive steps to ensure this never happens again," Holt said.