“We fought the fight, but I had zero clout back then,” he said. “The decision was made at a higher level. Had I had the experience I have now, 10 years later, I would have stood up and probably just not done it.”
A Defense Department review of operations at the Dover mortuary revealed last week that some unidentified human remains recovered from the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon were incinerated and dumped in a landfill.
The disclosure stunned senior military leaders, lawmakers and victims’ families, who had assumed that all unidentified remains from the attack had been cremated and buried together as a group at Arlington National Cemetery.
Since then, Pentagon officials have scrambled to piece together what happened, and why.
Zwicharowski, who still works at Dover, is one of four whistleblowers there who have reported other problems at the mortuary to investigators, including accounts of missing body parts and lax management. He is the first one directly involved in the handling of the Sept. 11 victims’ remains to speak out publicly about what transpired.
Recalling the events after Sept. 11, 2001, he said that both he and the Air Force commander at Dover felt strongly that it was more appropriate and dignified to bury a special collection of unidentified ashes at sea, but that their suggestion was repeatedly denied by superiors in the Air Force, the Army and the Pentagon, who wanted the remains treated differently because they were ingrained with “non-biological materials” from the crash site, such as concrete and other debris.
The superiors — whom Zwicharowski declined to identify — directed that the ashes be mixed with medical waste instead and handed over to a contractor for disposal, he said. Military officials have since acknowledged that the contractor incinerated the mixture and dumped the residue in a landfill. Neither the contractor nor the landfill has been publicly identified.
To buttress his account, Zwicharowski shared several e-mails from July and August 2002 in which military officials discussed what to do with the ashes. He redacted the names of officials from the e-mails, saying he didn’t want to blame individuals.
Pentagon officials acknowledged that they have copies of the e-mails. An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. John L. Dorrian, declined to comment but did not dispute Zwicharowski’s account.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has directed Pentagon officials to get to the bottom of the matter and brief relatives of people killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 later this month. George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Zwicharowski’s assertions but said the Defense Department is “assembling the facts on past policies and practices” at Dover.