Quest to find granddad's grave is at a crossroads

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

He's been at it for more than two decades now. A Roxbury man searching for his grandfather's missing grave is closer to an answer, but it may not be the one he wants.

Patrick Andriani learned yesterday that the results of a ground-penetrating radar survey of the suspected Hudson County grave site where he believes his grandfather is buried are inconclusive.

There's something down there, the radar shows, but it cannot be determined whether it is evidence of human remains.

Now it's up to Hudson County to decide whether Andriani's quest will continue or come to an uncertain end. Only actually digging would yield a definitive answer, and the county has not committed itself to such a venture.

The radar survey was conducted at a fenced area on the grounds of Meadowview Hospital in Secaucus. The site is believed to have been the reburial grounds for as many as several hundred bodies that were moved there more than 30 years ago from a potter's field at Laurel Hill in Secaucus, alongside the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike.

The Turnpike and its archeological consultant, the Berger Group of East Orange, have disinterred the remains of more than 3,000 individuals from the potter's field under a court-ordered, $5 million exhumation to clear the way for construction of a $250 million interchange between Interchanges 16E and 18E to serve a new NJ Transit rail transfer station.

Efforts to rebury those remains suffered a setback earlier this month when human bones were found at the reinterment site in Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen, despite assurance from cemetery officials that the site was free of any prior burials. The state Cemetery Board is investigating how the remains got there, and the Turnpike is looking for a new site to bury the potter's field remains.

Graves at the Laurel Hill potter's field, which served as a burial ground for a complex of Hudson County hospitals and institutions from the 19th century through 1962, were first disrupted when the Turnpike's eastern spur was built in the early 1950s.

In 1969, Hudson County planned to remove remains from as many as several hundred graves at the potter's field as part of an ill-fated plan to restore some of the county's Laurel Hill property to the local tax rolls for redevelopment.

Some $40,000 was allocated to hire a contractor for the disinterment at Laurel Hill and reinterment at Meadowview, but Meadowview's morgue custodian was later accused of pocketing the money and using county road crews and prisoners to accomplish the job. He was indicted but died before going to trial, and no one knows if or how the remains were reburied at Meadowview. Three neat rows of cylindrical grave markers, the same kind of grave markers found at Laurel Hill, line the site in a fenced area on the hospital grounds.

Turnpike and Hudson County officials were hoping the ground radar survey would show neat lines of anomalies in the texture of the soil, indicating the potter's field remains were reburied in rows corresponding to the grave markers.

"There are some anomalies that look like something's down there, but it doesn't indicate anything conclusive," said Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority.

Any further examination of what might be buried at Meadowview would be the responsibility of Hudson County, which would have to seek a court order to exhume any graves.

Andriani is hoping the county will continue the exploration of the hospital site. His immigrant grandfather, Gennaro, was buried at Laurel Hill on New Year's Eve 1948 and Andriani has an old letter from the county indicating his grandfather's remains may have been among those moved to Meadowview 34 years ago.

"If they (the county) have to go in and dig, they have to go in and dig," Andriani said yesterday. "If these people were buried in a horrible, disrespectful way, I think you have to fix it."

Andriani has been on a mission to find his grandfather's grave for more than two decades, only to find himself thwarted by lost or nonexistent records and the disruption of the Laurel Hill potter's field. The site was littered and unrecognizable as a burial ground when the Turnpike exhumation began in February.

County spokesman Jim Kennelly declined to comment on what the next step might be, saying he would prefer to wait until the county receives the archeological consultant's report today.

"I think we're going to wait until we actually see the analysis," he said.

But when the radar survey was conducted two weeks ago, Kennelly suggested the county might just want to restore the Meadowview burial grounds to "what it should have been in the first place -- an attractive, respectable site," without disrupting any remains in an effort to learn who and how many people are buried there.

"I don't want to devalue for one second the struggle that Patrick's been through," Kennelly said at the time. "But we have to balance that against the larger interests of the taxpayers of Hudson County."

"That's not acceptable," countered Andriani. "If that happens, I'd be really disappointed. I don't want to be a problem for the county. I just want them to do what's right. This should have never happened.

"This is a personal thing with me," he said. "It's my grandfather. This is my father's father. He just had the misfortune of dying in Hudson County in 1948."

2003 Star Ledger

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