The cremated remains of seven World War I, World War II and Korean War-era veterans were buried with military honors Friday in a long-overdue ceremony that organizers say was set in motion by ghost tales at a New York museum.
The ashes were among 24 sets of remains discovered in a basement closet 10 years ago as the Iron Island Museum was settling into its new address, a former funeral home.
The building's former owners quickly picked up the remains, labeled only with names and dates of death. Soon afterward, museum volunteers reported seeing shadowy "people," and hearing voices and the sound of aluminum chairs being banged about. A framed picture of a child on Santa's lap would be found under -- instead of on top of -- the table where it is displayed.
"Strange things were happening all the time," said Linda Hastreiter, president of the small museum that features a mix of railroad, military and other items saved by neighborhood preservationists.
A friend suggested in 2007 that the museum call paranormal investigators. Last year, a psychic claimed to detect the presence of a man named Edgar, which led Hastreiter to the list of identities from the remains, and the name Edgar L. Zernicke.
Hastreiter dug deeper into Zernicke's life and found he'd served in the Marines from 1925 to 1929, fought in the Sandino Rebellion in Nicaragua in 1928 and later spent four years in the Navy before returning to Buffalo. He died in 1992 at age 87, twice widowed and a retired tool and die maker.
Hastreiter helps find unclaimed veterans' remains and ensure they receive their final honors as a coordinator for the Patriot Guard Riders Veterans Recovery Program. She determined that at least 11 sets of the basement remains belonged to veterans who, like Zernicke, had been deprived of a proper send-off. She began a quest to find relatives to secure permission for military burials.
On Friday, seven sets of the remains were back at the museum, each in a white box on a case beneath an American flag and a display of vintage military uniforms.
In a quiet ceremony, members of an Army honor guard and the Patriot Guard took turns saluting the veterans before carrying each urn from the museum and placing it into a hearse headed to Bath National Cemetery 90 miles away. There, among row after row of white headstones, would be a traditional seven-rifle volley and a trumpeter playing taps.
"It's wonderful what they're doing," said Richard Gerwitz, 62, as he watched the remains of his father, Alfred, who died in 1986, carried to the hearse past a phalanx of flags as a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."
Alfred Gerwitz was an Army veteran who had taken part in the invasion of Normandy, was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star and spent 25 years as a steelworker in Buffalo.
Until last month, Richard Gerwitz thought one of his eight siblings had taken care of the ashes. Had he known otherwise, he said, he would have taken the ashes to Bath himself.
"He was proud of his service," Gerwitz said of his father. "He had said he wanted to be buried with his veteran buddies."
Hastreiter marvels at how things worked out.
"None of this would have come about if Chip Coffey hadn't said (Edgar's) name," she said. "People might think it's a crazy thing, but that's the truth."
Authorities say thousands of unclaimed and forgotten veterans are in funeral home storage areas. The Missing in America Project was launched in 2007 to find them and arrange military burials.
More than 1,000 sets of veterans' remains have been identified and more than 850 buried, said Fred Salanti, the project's founder and executive director.