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Waleska Martinez Rivera: Sept. 11 Hero Is Laid To Rest
By Iván Román
October 28, 2001
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- Waleska Martinez Rivera didn't set out to be a hero when she said goodbye to her mother in her New Jersey apartment and took ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11.
But she was. That's what President Bush personally told her loved ones later in the White House and the relatives of the other passengers who rebelled and kept terrorists from possibly slamming the airliner into another symbol of power of Washington.
That was some comfort for her parents who finally, about 40 days after the tragedy, were able to bury the remains of who they called "Tatita" in their hometown of Caguas last Saturday.
"Until I buried her, I kept her alive in my mind, and I never thought they were going to find any of her," said her older sister Lourdes Lebron, 40, minutes after tossing a flower in the grave. "At least there are remains here so my mother can come and place flowers and her friends can come see her."
Martinez, 37, was the first of hundreds of Puerto Ricans who died on that horrific day whose body was able to be brought to the island to be buried. Amid the sadness, her high-school friends, colleagues and friends who flew in from New York and Philadelphia, highlighted the warmth and happiness she left in their lives.
She was quickly promoted at the Bureau of the Census, her first job after getting a business administration degree at the University of Puerto Rico, and began administering computer programs and training people in several parts of the country.
Her colleagues talked about how the baseball, volleyball and tennis fan enthusiastically organized the New York office's baseball team that would beat their counterparts in Philadelphia.
And with little things, she brought love and warmth. Chemistry teacher Eduardo Fraguada, a close friend from high school, fondly remembered that Martinez's Christmas card was always the first to arrive. A day after the airliner crashed in Pennsylvania, a friend at work found on her desk a birthday gift Martinez had left for her the night before getting on the plane to teach a seminar in San Francisco.
"She had that ability to say a lot without talking much, and get into people's hearts in an unassuming way, without a lot of fanfare," said friend Gerardo Rolon, who sang "Ave Maria" before the bright silvery casket.
When her father was laid up with back surgery this year, Martinez returned to Puerto Rico to spoon feed him in the hospital. As the unofficial family counselor, she helped relatives navigate through hard times.
"She had a solution for everything," Lebron said. "She would sometimes say, 'The only thing I can't do is split myself up into little pieces for everyone.' "
The testimony under the sun and rain showed how much they will miss her. Her mother, Irma Rivera, could do little else that day but receive hugs and cry.
Visiting her daughter in New Jersey, Rivera remembers Martinez waking up at 3 a.m. that day worried about taking the trip, even though business flights were routine for her. As Rivera tossed a flower in the grave, relatives held her back so she wouldn't fall in. "They destroyed my life," she said.
Then every member of the family kissed a white dove and set it free to symbolize her spirit.
"I love you, Wally," shouted one of her friends from New Jersey as the dove took flight. And they all embraced to cry.