WASHINGTON — The head of the Air Force on Wednesday disputed a report that some unidentified remains from the Sept. 11, 2001, plane crash site in Shanksville, Pa., had been disposed of in a landfill, casting more confusion on an episode that's embarrassed the Pentagon and Dover Air Force Base, which handles the remains of the nation's war dead.
A report commissioned by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and released Tuesday had found that some unidentifiable remains of victims from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Shanksville were "placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor." The contractor eventually disposed of the remains in a landfill, the report said.
But during a breakfast with reporters Wednesday, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff of the Air Force, said that those remains belonged only to victims at the Pentagon, not on Flight 93.
"Overnight, we've had an opportunity to review the report quickly and have had an opportunity to do some research on one of the fundamental questions that came up related to the remains of the fallen from 9/11," Schwartz said, according to an official Pentagon account.
Within hours of the report's release Tuesday, the coroner in Somerset County, Pa., where the crash occurred, and family members of the victims disputed the findings, saying that none of the Shanksville remains had gone to Dover.
The conflicting accounts despite multiple reports and investigations only deepened questions about the handling of the remains of America's fallen troops and whether the Pentagon can fix the long-standing problems at Dover.
After whistleblowers reported mishandling of troop remains at the mortuary, an Air Force probe concluded last fall that the partial remains of 274 service members had been incinerated and disposed of in a landfill. Inquiries by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, also found instances of mishandled remains and that some at the mortuary had retaliated against the whistleblowers.
An independent panel led by Retired Gen. John Abizaid conducted its own review, which reported Tuesday that some 9/11 victims' remains also had been disposed of in this way. Abizaid refused to offer details on the 9/11 victims Tuesday, saying, "You'll have to ask the question elsewhere."
Pentagon officials offered little clarity on Schwartz's claim Wednesday. Schwartz and Michael Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, said they'd first learned about the improper disposal of 9/11 victims from the report.
Panetta's spokesman, George Little, said Wednesday that the Pentagon needed more information before it could brief 9/11 families on what had happened.
"The department is continuing to assemble records and information on the past practices of disposition of partial remains," Little said.
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