Steve Ruark, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Partial remains of several 9/11 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 the war dead.
The surprise disclosure was mentioned only briefly, with little detail, in a report by an independent panel that studied underlying management flaws at Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Maryland. A 2011 probe found "gross mismanagement" there, but until Tuesday there had been no mention of Dover's role in handling 9/11 victims' remains.
Air Force leaders, asked about the 9/11 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 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 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."
Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of the plane that was driven into the Pentagon by terrorist hijackers, said she was confused by the report. She said she attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at which unidentified 9/11 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 9/11 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 plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville killed 40.
The Abizaid report said that in line with Dover's policy, "cremated portions were then placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal" company under Air Force contract. "Per the biomedical waste contract at that time, the contractor then transported these containers and incinerated them."
The report said Dover authorities assumed that after incineration "nothing remained."
But a Dover management "query" found that "there was some residual material following incineration and that the contractor was disposing of it in a landfill." It added that use of the landfill was not disclosed in the waste disposal contract.
"We don't think it should have happened," Abizaid told reporters.
It was unclear whether families of the 9/11 victims were aware remains had gone to contractors and then to the landfill. In the case of the war dead, officials previously said the remains were given to contractors for disposal only in cases in which remains could not be identified or in which families had already buried their loved ones and had informed the military that they did not want to be told if additional remains were later found.
Such a development was not uncommon as the wars wore on in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombs were the main insurgent weapon.