WASHINGTON Partial remains from some people killed in the September 11 attacks in 2001 ended up in a landfill, according to a Pentagon-commissioned report released on Tuesday that revealed previously undisclosed blunders at the U.S. military's main mortuary.
The unidentified remains came from two of the three sites of the September 11 attacks: the Pentagon and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash site of one of the hijacked airliners. The World Trade Center in New York City, which was leveled in the attacks, was not cited.
Retired General John Abizaid, briefing Pentagon reporters on the findings of the independent review of practices at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, said it was unclear how many people's partial remains were disposed of in this manner.
"I don't know that there's a way to find out," Abizaid said.
The remains were classified in the report as ones which "could not be tested or identified," leaving open the possibility that they could have come from victims and even hijackers.
The incident is certain to further undermine the reputation of the Dover mortuary after last year's revelations that it mishandled the remains of war dead. This included losing body parts twice and allowing the partial remains of at least 274 troops to be dumped in a Virginia landfill. That policy was abandoned in 2008 and all partial remains are now buried at sea.
Dover, which is under the control of the Air Force, is the main entry port for returning war dead from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House said it was deeply concerned about the "unacceptable handling of remains at Dover" and that it supported the Pentagon's efforts to "make needed structural changes so that these types of incidents never happen again."
"The United States has a solemn obligation to compassionately and professionally care for fallen service members and their families, and those we tragically lost on 9/11," the White House statement said.
The report suggested that the human remains from the September 11 attacks were essentially treated like medical waste. The remains were cremated, placed in sealed containers and then given to a biomedical waste firm, which incinerated them.
Although the report said the assumption among top brass at the time was that "nothing remained" after the cremation and incineration, officials later learned some residual material was left behind, the report said. That material was being dumped in a landfill.
The independent report's claims about the remains of September 11 dead appeared to take Air Force leaders by surprise as well as a group representing victims of the crashed United Airlines flight in Pennsylvania.
"This is impossible to believe," said Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for Families of Flight 93, who said the remains from the crash were under the control of the Somerset County coroner.
"Our understanding is that no remains were sent to Dover."
Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said they had not been aware of the incidents and were unable to provide more details.
Both asked for time to review the findings and tried to emphasize the path ahead, citing steps that would be taken to improve oversight at the Dover mortuary.
"That's really where we need to focus our time, in improving our current operations to make sure this kind of event does not occur again," Donley said.
The report also disclosed other irregularities. One happened in 2006 when the mortuary accidentally treated the victims of a Navy T-39 Sabreliner jet crash as medical waste, as opposed to giving them a group burial.
In January, 2008, the Air Force paid a $25,000 settlement to the widow of a Marine whose personal effects were cremated along with his remains.
Abizaid acknowledged that investigations into irregularities at Dover had taken place in the past but had not been acted upon, due to a lack of oversight.
"I will readily admit that there were a series of investigations that took place within the mortuary that ... were not properly taken into account. In other words, corrective actions were not taken," he said. "And with a dysfunctional, isolated chain of command, it could not have."
Asked who was responsible for the lack of oversight, Schwartz, who took his position in 2008, said: "You're looking at him. Me. I'm responsible."
So far no one has been fired over the mishaps at Dover mortuary. But Donley left open the possibility of further disciplinary action because of reprisals by local staff against Dover whistle-blowers, whose complaints brought the initial irregularities to light.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Christopher Wilson)