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Tomb dispute may lead to disinterment of flier's remains

Sometime soon, a construction crane may lift several tons of granite, concrete and marble at one of the nation's most hallowed sites, the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, so scientists can try to name the serviceman interred there most recently.

If the tomb is opened, it is quite possible the scientists will find that the man laid to rest in 1984 was Michael Blassie, a highly decorated Air Force lieutenant who was killed on May 11, 1972, when his attack plane was shot down in flames near An Loc, South Vietnam. He was 24.The lieutenant's relatives believe that his remains, just a half-dozen bones, are in the tomb and wrongly labeled "unknown." If science proves them right, they want what is left of him buried elsewhere, under a headstone with his name on it, most likely in St. Louis, where he grew up.

"That's all I want, for them to open the tomb," the pilot's mother, Jean Blassie, said recently. "If it's Michael, I want him to be brought home."

Whether to open the tomb is a decision so serious - some say solemn - that it is being discussed at the highest levels of the Defense Department. Ultimately, Congress and the White House may become involved, because there is no provision for disinterring any of the four sets of remains at the shrine, a Pentagon spokesman said.

"This is new territory," said the spokesman, Larry Greer, who works in the office that handles matters pertaining to servicemen missing in action.

All this is happening now because, for reasons that are not clear, the remains of an American pilot recovered in 1972 were at first labeled "believed to be" Blassie and later classified as "unknown."

Though no one is saying for sure now that the bones in Arlington are those of Blassie, no one denies the strong possibility that they are. And science can identify remains in ways undreamed of only a few years ago.

With Blassie's mother and four siblings available to give blood samples for DNA testing, "it would not be a big problem" to establish whether the remains are those of Blassie, said Haig Kazazian, the chairman of the genetics department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Blassie's relatives are adamant in wanting the tomb opened. "Absolutely," said his sister, Pat Blassie, who lives in Atlanta. "The trail leads to the tomb."