WASHINGTON -- The mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware disposed of body parts of some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by burning them and dumping the ashes in a landfill, an independent panel said in a report to the Pentagon released Tuesday.
The disclosure was the latest to tarnish the reputation of Dover, hallowed ground for the military and the entry point for the nation's war dead, and is likely to create further anguish among families of the Sept. 11 victims.
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," Ms. Burlingame said. "The Department of Defense was exceedingly sensitive and treated those unidentified remains with great respect. … I would want to know more."
Mortuary officials had already been under fire for what the Air Force termed "gross mismanagement" for losing the body parts of two service members in 2009, repeated failures of command, doing little to change sloppy practices, and sawing off the protruding arm bone of a dead Marine without informing his family.
The method of disposal of the Sept. 11 body parts was limited to what the report said were "several portions of remains" that could not be identified from the attack on the Pentagon and the crash site in Shanksville, Pa.
The report said the remains were cremated and placed in containers provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor, which then incinerated them and put them in the landfill.
Air Force officials said Tuesday night they were trying to clarify details.
The practice also was used for some unidentified remains of war dead, a fact first disclosed late last year.
The practice has since been stopped and the ashes are now put in urns and buried at sea.
The review ordered by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicates that problems at the mortuary were more extensive and go back further than previously known.
It mentions but does not elaborate on a 2005 internal mortuary investigation that found that "human remains were misrouted in a fashion constituting dereliction of duty," a 2009 fraud investigation that is still open, and a 2008 settlement of $25,000 paid to a Marine spouse for "mental anguish and medical costs due to the loss of personal effects."
John Abizaid, the retired general who led the panel, acknowledged the problems and said that "corrective actions were not taken" as a result of the inquiries.
A former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, he concluded that the mortuary's leadership at the time was a "dysfunctional, isolated chain of command."
He said he did not know how many remains of the Sept. 11 victims passed through Dover.
Although the mortuary is primarily for war dead, it has handled the remains of civilians in large catastrophes.
The disclosure about the Sept. 11 remains was deep in the panel's report, in a few paragraphs on Page 6 and then again in two brief mentions in the appendix.
The two top Air Force officials insisted Tuesday that they were surprised by the Sept. 11 news.
Rep. Rush Holt, (D., N.J.), said Tuesday that he had been "appalled" to learn last year that the mortuary had put the remains of some service members in a landfill.
Mr. Holt, who has a constituent whose husband's remains were disposed of in a landfill, added, "I suspected, as General Abizaid's panel has now confirmed, that these practices had been going on for many years."
Diane Horning, who lost her son Matthew at the World Trade Center, said she was shocked by Tuesday's revelations.
"We need a protocol to be put in place so that we know this can never happen again," Ms. Horning said.
She added, "Not only am I broken-hearted but I am outraged."
The Air Force put off a decision until mid-March on whether three top mortuary officials should have been fired for the problems.