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NYC officials plan urgent bone recovery at Hart Island

A photographer who went to document the effects of erosion on the island said he saw what he believed were the remains of four individuals.

The decaying abandoned prison workhouse on Hart Island

The decaying abandoned prison workhouse on Hart Island in New York City on March 27, 2014. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

Faced with storm erosion on Hart Island that continues to unearth human remains, New York City officials this week are planning an urgent recovery of bones from its shores, saying they also want to accelerate repairs to the island’s sea wall damaged by superstorm Sandy.

Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Correction — which has control of the island and uses prisoners to bury the dead — acknowledged in a statement last Wednesday that erosion can mean a risk of exposure.

“For that reason, we have scheduled with OCME [office of the chief medical examiner] to remove and reinter any currently exposed remains this week,” Kersten said.

He said the department is doing everything it can to expedite repairs to the shoreline.

An estimated 1 million people are buried on Hart Island, a slice of land between City Island and Sands Point on Long Island Sound, that’s been the city’s Potters Field since 1869.

According to a report prepared by the city after Sandy for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the storm surge in October 2012 caused “significant damage” to the shoreline and sea walls of the island.

In 2015, some $13.2 million in sea wall funding for Long Island Sound was allocated to the Department of Correction, but the project was delayed in part because the state had to conduct environmental and history reviews for the island, which is a historic landmark.

Melinda Hunt, who heads The Hart Island Project — a nonprofit that works to preserve the island and its history — and Oyster Bay pediatrician and photographer Greg Gulbransen traveled to the island last Sunday to document the disinterment of remains on the northeast shoreline. They photographed the scene from a fishing boat.

Gulbransen said he saw what he believed were the remains of four individuals, whose bones are scattered among the rocks and sticking out from tree roots. “I was shocked by what I saw through my lens,” Gulbransen said in an email.

Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chairman of the committee on health, has long pushed for the Parks Department to take control of the island and wants the city medical examiner, whose office his committee oversees, to be in charge of burials.

“These are New Yorkers who are buried there, people who were neglected and marginalized in life and we have done the same thing to them in this burial ground.”

Levine and Hunt believe the city can’t wait and must take some action now. “Enough is enough,” Hunt said.

Gulbransen said the remains must be reburied.

“Every culture in the world recognizes the importance of a proper burial and the sanctity of a grave,” Gulbransen said.

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