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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Nelson Gracia-Cruz

'I found a lot of horrible stuff.... Skin, hair, bits of clothing. Baby pictures.'

September 11, 2002

Nelson Gracia-Cruz, 25, is a mortuary affairs specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve. The Arecibo, Puerto Rico, native was sent to sift for human remains in the rubble of the Pentagon.


"Nobody wants my job. Nobody.

You go into the Army or the reserves or whatever, and most guys are looking to get to the action. They want to be on a battlefield, shooting bad guys, not searching for what's left of some poor soul who didn't make it.

Not me. When I joined the reserves, I was 17 and looking for the safest Army job I could find, one with good benefits, a way out of my life in Puerto Rico.

When I got the chance to join a unit whose mission is to find, sort through and categorize the remains and personal effects of war victims, I jumped at it. I knew no dead guy was going to get me.

When the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I'd been at it for seven years, spending most of my weekends training, going to mortuaries, looking at corpses, searching through contrived rubble for fake severed hands and stuff.

I thought I'd seen it all.

So there I was, in the north parking lot of the Pentagon five days after the attacks. We'd come right from the plane. It was dark, maybe 9:30 at night.

They put us right to work.

I remember I was wearing my white Tyvex suit, my gloves, my mask. The place was still smoking. The stench was horrible. You could smell burning fuel and human flesh.

I was sifting through a big pile of rubble that the guys with the heavy equipment had pulled out of that huge, stinking scar in the building. I reached into the pile, and the first thing I pulled out was a finger. Not burned, not shredded. Just an entire finger that used to belong to a human being.

I couldn't stop shaking. I found a lot of horrible stuff afterward. Skin, hair, bits of clothing. Baby pictures. Wedding bands. A wooden Uncle Sam figurine. Last month, a guy came to claim it. He saw a picture of it in one of the big books of pictures we've made of every single thing we've found. Turns out his mom had made it for him. He said everything else in his office had burned clear away. He can't figure why that Uncle Sam came through that fire.

I think about it every day. I used to think I was invincible. But now I know better. I don't know where I'm going to be tomorrow. My mom is my very best friend, and when she saw me on leave a few months ago she said, 'Nelson, you've grown up.'

She's not kidding. When those planes hit, I was planning to get married in December to my fiancee, Rita. She wanted the whole wedding thing--white dress, big celebration, lots of family. But after I'd been digging up parts of dead people for a few weeks, I called her up. I said, 'Let's just get married now. I could get sent to Afghanistan tomorrow. I could die in a plane crash. I want you to be my wife.'

It was hard for her, but she knew I was right. She flew up. So did my parents and her mom and dad. We were married here in the courthouse in November.

I joined the Army for good a few months after Sept. 11. When I found out after the attacks that the Army has only about 300 guys in the whole world trained to do what I do, I was shocked. That's just not going to cut it if there's another attack or a full-blown war. They really need me.

I think it's going to work out all right for Rita and me. But I'm not steel anymore. You know what I think about? I think about riding to and from the Pentagon in the back of those trucks every day last fall. Every day we drove past this gas station on a hill outside the Pentagon where they had cordons set up.

That's where the families kept watch. They had candles lit and flags and signs, photos of the people who might be dead inside that building. They stood there all day and all night, waiting for some news. Whenever they saw us, they started clapping. I couldn't understand it. I thought, I haven't done much, I'm just going through this stuff, doing my job. But now, with our work almost at an end, I feel differently. I think what we've done is almost like putting together a puzzle. It's like completing a life. It's giving back a wedding band to a wife or a piece of cloth to a daughter. It's not much. But it's something."


As told to Esther Schrader

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