Deal OK'd to Resume Construction on 9/11 Museum

NEW YORK -- Construction will resume on the stalled 9/11 museum, even though outraged relatives of people killed in the terrorist attacks had asked that a vote on the deal be postponed.

Remembering 9/11

Instead, the board of commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted unanimously Thursday to approve the pact with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Foundation. The deal means work on the project, halted since last November, will resume.

But family members of those killed in the attacks questioned the legality of the agreement, which also transfers ownership of the 9/11 museum and memorial site to the foundation. They said they will ask for a federal investigation.

The biggest issue for the family members is the presence of human remains in the space to be occupied by the museum, seven stories below street level -- a decision many said should have been put to a vote by each family.

"It was supposed to be a memorial to the dead of 9/11. The families had zero to do with it ... they took 9,000 remains and, against the wishes of the families, put them in the basement of a paid, private museum," Sally Regenhard of Yonkers said after the vote. She lost her son, a firefighter, in the attacks.

"It's an outrage," Regenhard said.

Family members discussed that issue and other concerns about the memorandum of understanding between the Port Authority and the foundation, which is chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"They rushed through this and came up with the memorandum of understanding," said Jim Richies, father of firefighter Jimmy Richies, who was killed at the World Trade Center. "There are a lot of issues to address -- they just pushed it through."

Regenhard said she would call for a federal investigation to be chaired by Sen. Tom Colburn of Oklahoma and Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, because of the "hundreds of millions of dollars" in federal and state funding allocated for the museum and memorial.

Richies, a retired New York fire department deputy chief, said each family should have gotten a vote on whether they wanted the remains to be in the museum underground or in a "tomb of the unknown" monument above ground at the site.

"It's despicable -- there has been zero input from the families," Regenhard said.

Families were consulted before the decision, and many have differing views on what should be done with the remains, said Patrick Foye, Port Authority executive director.

He said an agreement to transfer ownership of the 8 acres containing the museum and memorial to the foundation dates to 2006 and is acknowledged in the latest pact. In exchange, the Port Authority will receive the site of the former Deutsche Bank building, he said.

"We have, throughout the process, solicited and met with 9/11 families," Foye said. "The concerns of the family members, about the unidentified remains, personally resonates with me."

The agreement means nothing else will ever be developed on the site, which includes the building footprints of the fallen Twin Towers, he said, adding that the Port Authority lost 84 employees in the attacks.

Norman Siegel listed other concerns the families have about the agreement, including the lack of a family representative on any of the three boards that will provide oversight; event planning and operations issues; and a potential conflict of interest on the part of Bloomberg for his dual role as mayor and head of the foundation.

Siegel asked the board to delay transfer of the property until the foundation can demonstrate that it is financially able to operate and maintain a world class memorial.

"Before a transfer occurs, the board should consider what will happen if the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (foundation) cannot meet its financial obligation," Siegel told the board.

Cal Snyder echoed those concerns and cautioned the board that ownership of the property is the only leverage it has over the foundation.

"Wait until the site is fully operational and determine if it (the foundation) can pay its own way and can become the custodian of Ground Zero," Snyder said. "Withholding the property is the most important leverage you have."

Richard Hughes of the Twin Towers Alliance -- a watchdog group that has followed issues pertaining to the rebuilding of the trade center site -- said the decision to transfer the property was made without public debate "behind closed doors" at the Port Authority, adding that the foundation is less open to the public than the authority.

Scott Rechler, board vice chairman, acknowledged that the 9/11 memorial issues are emotionally volatile, which is why the Port Authority "stepped back to say, 'Make sure it's done right.' "

"We slowed down the process and developed a plan to have fiscal oversight coordinated between the authority and the foundation," he said. "We retained a third-party adviser to look at their plans and to advise them on how to be sustainable."

Richies reiterated a request by Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, made in a June letter asking the National Park Service to help finance and run the memorial and museum.

"They (the foundation) need help," he said. "The National Park Service should at least give oversight."

Copyright 2012 - Asbury Park Press, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service