A group of victims' families angry that unidentified remains will go in the Sept. 11 museum instead of the Ground Zero memorial went to court Wednesday to try to get the city to help them inform other next of kin about the issue.
"A memorial is a place of reverence, a proper burial place," Norman Siegel, the lawyer for the families, told Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Cynthia Kern. "A museum is a commercial venture. People are upset."
The city, however, said victims' families were extensively consulted about the placement of more than 9,000 unidentified remains, and dissenters have no right to the names and addresses of all next of kin to send out a letter of complaint.
"The release of this information would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," said city lawyer Thaddeus Hackworth, invoking a legal exception to Freedom of Information laws.
The issue is a sensitive one. Remains of more than 40 percent of the victims of Sept. 11 were never identified, nor were portions of the remains of many others.
Under the current plan, the unidentified remains would be kept 70 feet underground, in a room under the jurisdiction of the New York City medical examiner, but adjacent to the museum. A facing wall would tell museum visitors what was behind it, and quote the Roman poet Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."
There would be a sitting room for family, but access would be through the museum, and some plaintiffs feel sacred remains would be exhibits.
"Human remains do not belong in a museum," said Margaret Cawley, the mother of deceased firefighter Michael Cawley of Bellmore. "You should not have to go down into the pit, across from pictures of the terrorists. It should be a sacred area, above-ground."
Seventeen family members of 10 victims have joined in the lawsuit. They said they believed that most families expected remains to be housed in the airy, leafy memorial plaza, rather than entombed in a tourist attraction in the site's bedrock.
"You've got to walk by a gift shop," said plaintiff Jim Riches, an FDNY deputy chief whose firefighter son Jimmy died on Sept. 11. "You have to walk by tourists. We wanted it above-ground, like a tomb of the unknown soldier."
They are convinced that if a letter went out to the families of all 2,700-plus victims detailing the plan, there would be an uproar. Siegel said an intermediary -- such as a retired judge -- could send the letter to safeguard names and addresses.
But the city and officials of the Ground Zero site say the plan is widely understood, and meets the desire of many families that the unidentified remains be in the site's bedrock.
City lawyer Hackworth said requiring disclosure of names and addresses would invite unwanted solicitations to "exploit" the families based on their presence on a list they didn't voluntarily join. "The Sept. 11 families," he said, "did not have a choice here."
Kern did not say when she will rule.