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Floral Park man preserves dignity of Memorial Park

When duty called Bill Keir a few weeks ago, the former enlisted man picked up the phone.

The voice of a friend who works in the medical examiner’s office in Manhattan informed him that his skills and services were needed at Memorial Park, a temporary resting place for the remains of many who died at Ground Zero.

Inside 16 refrigerated trailers parked beneath a large white tent on East 30th Street, nearly 20,000 body parts await identification. When families and friends of victims visit their loved ones’ remains, they must pass beneath American flags that serve as curtains at the entrances to the trailers.

But the 16 Stars and Stripes, hooked overhead by clips, need to be replaced. The medical examiner’s office wants a more durable and efficient arrangement, one that will continue to preserve the site’s dignity while allowing visitors to enter the trailers unimpeded.

Keir, owner of Gomer’s Decorators in Floral Park who had served in the Army, designs custom draperies for a living.

“The medical examiner’s office had a meeting about this, and my name popped up. ‘Oh, you know, we’ll call Billy and have him come and have a look,’” Keir said. “Of course, I went up there like, ‘PFC Keir, reporting for duty.’ You know, whatever it takes.”

Proper replacement of the flags required research. Keir realized he could handle the project, but first he needed to figure out how to remove the old flags and present them to the medical examiner’s office.

“The main thing is that I want this done professionally and respectfully,” Keir said. “I went in and looked at the situation and said, ‘Well, we could rig them like a Roman shade, where they can be gathered up respectfully and easily lowered.’ That way the flag will always be treated with respect.”

Keir called the American Legion and learned how to fold the flag in a triangle. On Monday, when he and two of his employees install the new curtains, Keir will present the old flags to the chief medical examiner.

“We’re very proud as a company to be able to contribute, even in such a small way. It makes us feel like giants,” Keir said. “I want to do everything possible to handle this with a lot of dignity, because as small as this may seem, to me it’s very large.”

The medical examiner’s office has identified the remains of about half the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. The other half, nearly 1,500 people, await DNA tests.

The temporary resting spot, also known as Serenity Park, admits only families of victims and their invited guests.

“The feeling down there is very emotional,” Keir said, fighting back tears. “You know what’s there: 16 trailers full of body parts. I don’t know what Auschwitz was like, but there’s a terrible feeling there. I have friends there.

“When you think about the families that go down there, you realize that’s all they have. Right now this is their cemetery.”

In the showroom of Gomer’s Decorators, custom draperies, blinds, shades and upholstery await client specifications. Off the floor, however, in the factory space adjacent to Keir’s office, the collection of 16 new American flags is being prepared.

“If it were somebody’s window, it wouldn’t be such a big responsibility,” Keir said. “That’s the enormity of it. To me, just being picked to do it is a great honor.”

Reach reporter Joe Whalen by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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