For some, the hill represents New York’s resilience; for others it is an open wound. Below it is the wreckage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks mixed with remains.
The site at Fresh Kills, Staten Island, was the world’s largest open-air landfill until it closed in March 2001. But after al-Qaeda’s hijackers reduced the Twin Towers to steel and concrete piles, it was reopened to house the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
Today it is a place that generates consternation for some of the victims’ relatives. The first trucks arrived on the night of the bombing, and for ten months Dennis Diggins directed the work of moving 600,000 tonnes of rubble from “Ground Zero”.
“I don’t know what it would be like if I had a family member here. But I can say that the material was treated with the utmost respect”, recalls Diggins, 20 years later. “It was not mixed with garbage, there is a separation”, he adds.
The area became a small town, with thousands of sanitation workers, police, FBI agents and secret service. They all searched the site for clues, valuables and remains that could help identify the victims.
Kurt and Diane Horning were among the relatives of those killed in the attacks that quickly visited the area. His son Matthew was a database administrator who died when the North Tower collapsed, an hour and 42 minutes after being hit by one of the hijacked planes.
They were stressed as soon as they arrived: the place was full of seagulls and mud. They found a credit card, a shoe, a watch.
One worker told them that for the first 45 days, due to lack of equipment, they worked with rakes and shovels.
“The idea was to work within budget, quickly (…) ‘Let’s show the country’s resilience and not stop at the dead.’ And that’s what they did,” says Diane.
Diggins says, instead, that neither he nor his workers treated the area like a normal landfill and operated “with respect.” “It was always known that there were human remains. We never stopped thinking about it”, he says, visibly moved.
He also says that as soon as the trucks left the site, he hired divers to search the surrounding pier and ensure that nothing was left uninspected.
– “Trash” –
Between the beginning and the end of the operation, the hill, which offers a breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan, where the Towers once stood, rose more than 25 meters. Separated from the rest of the hill by an insulating layer, the pile of rubble was covered with plastic sheeting.
The Hornings believe that some of Matthew’s remains are buried there. So far, only a fragment of his son’s bone has been recovered.
His attempts to remove all remains were rejected by the city government, led at the time by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“It was a double loss. Some decided it was a good idea to blow my son up. But then my own government decided I wasn’t good enough to bury him,” says Diane.
The Hornings and other families have proposed that the remains be sent to other locations in Fresh Kills that have never harbored garbage, but to no avail.
In 2005, 17 of them filed lawsuits. They tried to take the case to the Supreme Court, but the judges refused to consider it.
“I felt personally responsible for dragging other families into this. Now they have no hope and I have to live with that,” says Diane.
The site still dumps more than 40,000 cubic meters of methane a day from the decomposing garbage deposited there for many decades.
When it’s safe, New York authorities plan to open a memorial park at the site. The forecast is for it to happen in 2035.
But the Hornings aren’t interested. “It’s a garbage can,” says Diane. “It’s like on Christmas morning you give your child a beautifully wrapped package and when he opens it there’s garbage inside.”
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