Only the Dead Know Fresh Kills 

 

By Patrick Fenton

 

  

Beth A. Keiser/Associated Press

 

Fresh Kills Landfill: Graveyard for the Fallen.

  

 

By Patrick Fenton

 

"We all know that something is eternal. And
it ainít houses and it ainít names...
That something has to do with human beings."
(The Stage Manager looking out at the Groverís
Corners cemetery In Thornton Wilderís Our Town.)

 

It was an early Monday morning at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, the crank up of another work week. And as the cars on the West Shore Expressway moved slowly past it through the pouring rain, heading for their individual versions of the daily grind, I wondered how many of the people in them knew that they were passing by what has become the final resting place for the heroes of their time in America. High up on a hallowed hill in a garbage dump were the ashes of the men and women and children left behind when they shut down the massive sifting operation that ran around the clock seven days a week for nearly a year.

Some were firemen, some were police officers, some were just ordinary working stiffs. Now they were all buried together in what has become the only cemetery in the world that is located in the middle of a garbage dump. Diane Horning of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, who lost a son to the September 11 attacks, calls it "a national disgrace."

Once, the lights glowed all night long like a halo around the top of the Fresh Kills Landfill. And in eerie silence down below rows of barges would push past the nearby Isle of Meadows bringing in the dead, bringing in body parts, and ashes along with almost a million and a half tons of wreckage taken from the World Trade Center site.

Waiting at the other end at Fresh Kills to sort it all out were members of the NYPD, and the FBI and the Sanitation Department. At some point someone came up with the name "the fines" for what fell through the sifting screens. Then they were sifted again and made into two piles. Somehow at the end of the operation the two piles containing human ashes were bulldozed back in with the garbage that they had previously been separated from. And they were left there. Mixed back into the landfill with them were the ashes of 26-year-old Matthew Horning, the son of Diane Horning and her husband Kurt.

The Hornings come here to visit the site of his last remains now on holidays and any other days they can make it. They are the founders of a group called World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial. The guard at the checkpoint checks their id cards issued to them by the New York City Medical Examinerís Office and has them wait on the side in their car until an escort can take them up to the high hills to where the mass grave is.
Huge dump trucks with Peterbilt and Mack welded to their side roar by every few minutes as they wait. Itís the same routine they have to go through every day they come to pray over the place that holds part of the last remains of their son, Matthew. He was working on the 95th floor of the North Tower for Marsh and McLennan when the first plane struck.

It doesnít take long. They start up the road in the driving rain following a white Department of Sanitation van. Somehow the two vehicles get sandwiched in between two dump trucks. I stand in the rain for a while watching them as the odd convoy disappears around a turn at the top of the dirt road. The press is not allowed up there.

Soon, the Hornings come back down from the hill and we bunch into my Toyota to talk and to escape the rain. The bittersweet smell of methane gas is very strong this morning. The Fresh kills has become one of the largest manufacturers in the world of this byproduct that comes from the decomposing garbage that is converted into fuel. "Up on the hill it was very bad today," Diane Horning says. "It depends on the wind and the heaviness of the air." "And the fog," her husband Kurt adds.

She has brought flowers this morning. "Itís always a problem because there is nowhere to put them," she says. Once, the site that held the sifted "fines" was only about one acre, now mixed back in with the landfill it is about 40 acres. "Every place you go to set them down you say, oh, this place is so ugly. This is not what I want. We found a piece of pipe sticking up, so we put one of the flowers there. And then there was this twisted piece of metal that came up about five feet and we were able to put the other two there."

She describes the mound where the ashes of her son are buried. "Thereís mud, itís weedy, there are tire tracks, so you know they have been driving on it. The Hornings perseverance to have the ashes of the victims of September 11 moved out of this garbage dump and to a proper burial site has not gone unrecognized. They both played a big part in recent legislation that was signed into law by the Governor of New Jersey, James E. McGreevey. The law stated that the ashen remains of those who died in the September 11 attacks be removed from Fresh Kills and "integrated into a memorial at the World trade Center."

But without a sister law signed by the State of New York the ashes will remain forever as part of the landfill of the Fresh Kills garbage dump.
In an exhaustive effort to get support for a New York State bill they have contacted everyone from President Bush to Oprah Winfrey with no luck. Senator Charles Schumer, told them that "they have been talking to the White House and that itís the White Houseís contention that the jurisdiction belongs to the Mayor."

"We had a face to face conversation with Mayor Bloomberg at City Hall," Kurt Horning says.

"My husband and I were both wearing a pin with a picture of our son on it, and he never even gave us condolences. There was nothing warm there," Diane Horning says as the rain rolls down the front window of the car just a few feet from the checkpoint at Fresh Kills. "The first thing he said was, Ďwhat do you want?íThen he told us it was an issue he would not revisit. Every time he refers to it he says Ďthatís a lot of stuff to moveí," says Diane Horning as she shakes her head. One of the last things he said to them after they asked him if he could at least support them by signing their petition, which had almost 16,000 names on it, was, "I really donít believe that I could agree with your cause."

"So, I donít know," she says in frustration as her husband of more than 30 years looks on. At this point they just want the ashes removed to any honorable site. "From the beginning we have always said, the war was started, but why would you fight a war for something that would be left in the garbage?"

Ironically, they had just come down from a spot where once, on a summerís day on June 15, 2002, when they closed down the sifting operation, Mayor Bloomberg came to the Fresh Kills garbage dump and said : "I will make a commitment to all of you here Ė we will not forget the 2,800 people who died in the same way people have been dying for 226 years to make this the greatest country in the world so we can be free."

They sang the National Anthem after that and then all the politicians went home. Then a profound silence set in up on hill 1/9 where the ashes of the fallen are buried in the biggest garbage dump in the nation.

 

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