Families of World Trade Center victims said they were stunned Wednesday when a lawyer for the city characterized as "undifferentiated . . . dirt" the debris at a Staten Island landfill they believe contains human remains.
McCaffrey and several other family members were in Manhattan's federal appeals court as their lawyers challenged a 2008 lower court ruling that threw out their lawsuit aimed at forcing the city to reclaim finely sifted dirt from the trade center and bury it in a cemetery.
Some 1,100 victims out of the 2,749 who died in the Twin Towers that day were never found. The city brought trade center debris to Fresh Kills landfill and conducted extensive sifting and screening operations for human remains.
In July 2008, Manhattan federal district Judge Alvin Hellerstein said when he threw out the lawsuit that "all human remains that could be identified were identified" and that only a "undifferentiated mass of dirt" remained at the landfill.
But family members said they were shocked when a private Manhattan lawyer retained by the city to argue its case used the "dirt" remark in court.
"That is what we call our loved ones," said an angry McCaffrey, a lieutenant with the FDNY.
"Because they are unidentifiable doesn't mean they aren't human remains. That is why they have potter's field," said Rosemary Cain of Massapequa, whose son George, 35, was among the firefighters killed. "I can't tell you how hurtful that remark was."
Attorney Norman Siegel, who represents the families, said he explained that Hellerstein first used the "dirt" remark last year in his ruling. City officials Wednesday also noted Hellerstein's original statement.
Kenneth Becker, head of the Corporation Counsel office handling trade center cases, said the city approached the landfill task "with dignity, care and respect," resulting in the identification of thousands of remains and personal items.
"It is the city's hope that the park planned for Fresh Kills, where millions of tons of Ground Zero materials were carefully sifted and examined, will help us remember those we lost," Becker said.
"I was pleased by the tone of the questions and seriousness of the three [appeals] judges and was encouraged by their having a sense of what this case is about," Siegel said.
Siegel expects a ruling sometime in the next few months. He said it was unclear which city official made decisions to mingle the trade center dirt with regular garbage. The city medical examiner's office has said it was certain human remains were contained within the finely sifted dirt, he said.