REACHING THE MARSHY spot on southwestern Staten Island where good boats go to die requires a car, sturdy footwear, and a willingness to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Though a sliver of the Arthur Kill ship graveyard is visible from the nearest road, the site’s full grandeur only becomes apparent once you sneak beyond the “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” signs and hack through a miasma of seven-foot-tall reeds that stink of brine and guano.
The thicket finally dead-ends at a colossal pile of junk: thousands of splintered beams of lumber mixed in with broken engine parts. Just beyond this debris field lie as many three dozen ghostly ships in various states of decay, abandoned decades ago in this isolated corner of New York City.
The Arthur Kill ship graveyard was never meant to become such a decrepit spectacle. In the years following World War II, the adjacent scrapyard began to purchase scores of outdated vessels, with the intention of harvesting them for anything of value. But the shipbreakers couldn’t keep pace with the influx of boats, especially once people started to use the graveyard as a dumping ground for their old dinghies. Plenty of ships fell into such disrepair that they were no longer worth the effort to strip, especially since many teem with toxic substances. And so they’ve been left to rot in the murky tidal strait that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, where they’ve turned scarlet with rust and now host entire ecosystems of hardy aquatic creatures.
On the phone were Monica Gabrielle and Kristen Breitweiser. Their husbands died at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 attack. This week, a new effort to find remains from the site uncovered 39 pieces of what appeared to be human bones. That was the yield from the first three days of work in a process that is expected to go on for at least two months.
It turns out that 60 dump trucksâ€™ worth of soil from the trade center site, identified as long as two and half years ago as possibly holding human remains, has been sitting untouched beneath a tarp on Staten Island. The startling possibility exists that the remains of a large number of people could be found and identified in the months ahead, nearly 12 years after the attack.
â€œWe are not stupid,â€ Monica Gabrielle said, in classic understatement. â€œWe wouldnâ€™t be surprised if they are finding shards and tiny pieces down there 50 years from now.â€
Ms. Breitweiser jumped in. â€œBut if they found some of this stuff two years ago,â€ she asked, â€œwhat is the explanation for why it is sitting so long?â€
Neither woman was in a hurry to make demands for attention from a public for whom Sept. 11 is an episode of faded power. Yet their relentlessness over the last 12 years has served major civic purposes that would otherwise not have been met.