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Every Day Is Sept. 11 For Pentagon Victim Juan Cruz


September 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 


SCARRED SURVIVOR: Juan Cruz suffered burns.



WOODBRIDGE, Va. - Juan Cruz puts on his glasses, sits at his kitchen table and demonstrates how he learned to once again use a fork.

He had struggled for two weeks to grasp the utensil with his hands, both mangled as he escaped from the Pentagon on Sept. 11. His daughter, Marrissa, then 14, suggested he turn the fork slightly, so that he could hold it with the three remaining fingers on his right hand.

''Such a simple thing, a fork,'' said Cruz, 53, who suffered burns over 49 percent of his body and damaged corneas when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. ``But only if you have fingers to use.''

Since he was released from the hospital in December, Cruz has struggled with the once simple, familiar things of life.

''I had to bathe him,'' said his wife, Veronica, 44, who survived the attack unharmed in her Department of Defense office two corridors away. ``I had to brush his teeth. To clean him after he went to the bathroom. Sept. 11 has lasted a long, long time.''

Wednesday may be the day the nation marks the first anniversary of that tragic day. But for those who crawled from the Pentagon, often badly burned and scarred, every day is a reminder. They fear both noise and silence, crowded restaurants and malls. They brace themselves for looks people give when they pretend not to notice the scars, stitches and brown and pink skin discoloration.

Some plan to venture to the Pentagon to take part in the commemoration ceremonies. But when Sept. 12 dawns, they will keep commemorating the day -- through each surgery, each nightmare and each start at a sudden noise in the middle of the day -- trying to get to a place where things are simple again, knowing life will never be the same.

About 600 Pentagon workers have returned to the now-repaired portion of the building damaged by the hijacked plane, but William Wayne Sinclair is not among them.

Sinclair, 55, returned to work in January. But he couldn't forget the day the walls crumbled and the flames nearly engulfed him. Sinclair dropped to his knees, not knowing where to go. Then a voice beckoned him to crawl toward it. Six of his seven co-workers also made it out.

''Going back every day, seeing the parts that were demolished, it was too much,'' he said. ``A lot of friends were killed.''


In March, his company, Electronic Data Systems, allowed him to transfer to an office eight miles away. ''Kind of eased my mind a little bit,'' Sinclair said.

Sitting in the living room of his Riverdale, Md., bungalow, Sinclair flipped through the photo album his wife, Kay, 47, created of his three-week hospital stay. Sinclair, face greased to heal the burned skin, hands in bandages, smiles in shots with friends and family.

He has regained much of the use of his badly burned hands. His facial burns have healed completely. The emotional scars remain.

''I have good days and bad days,'' Sinclair said. ``Good days and bad days. But I am just glad to be alive.''

Louise Kurtz misses her fingers. She misses the way she could place country baskets and cute bears just so around her home. She misses the French manicures for which she faithfully set aside $35 every two weeks. She misses the feel of a pencil or the click of computer keys under her nails.

Sometimes she forgets they are no longer there, said her husband, Michael, 50. Not too long ago, she casually mentioned, ``I've got a hang nail on my finger.''

''You don't know what the heck to say,'' he said. ``That's the part that hurts. She mourns her fingers every day. Every day.''

Kurtz was burned over 70 percent of her body Sept. 11, her second day at work as an accountant. Cruz was her supervisor. She spent 13 weeks in the hospital -- one more than Cruz.

When she plotted her reconstructive surgeries, the schedule initially looked like this:

''June, face. Left hand, July. Take August off. Right hand in September. And I'll be done,'' Kurtz said. ``Well, I'm still working on my face. It'll probably be a lifetime of surgeries.''

Kurtz does not want to talk about Sept. 11 anymore. She doesn't remember much anyway. It is enough that she can no longer decorate her home, cook, clean, work, open a door, wear clothes with zippers or buttons, or see to her own basic hygiene. The couple moved to a single story house in March in Fredricksburg, Va., selling their Stafford, Va., town house because Kurtz could no longer climb the stairs.

Instead, Kurtz concentrates on the progress she has made since returning home. The bandages that for months covered her entire face are gone. Her hair has grown and now tickles her neck. It masks the fact that she no longer has ears. The surgery in August will help restore the shape of her lips.

On laundry day, she still manages to fold the shirts, rubbing out the wrinkles with her wrists.

''They want you to go on, yet everybody wants you to rehash,'' Kurtz said. ``I can't keep looking back. There's nothing more I can tell. It's harder now than 11 months ago.''

The government pays her medical costs, and is having their home remodeled.

Her husband, who works for the military, is on administrative leave until Oct. 1, but hopes to somehow stay home longer. And hopes the money ``somehow works itself out.''

Kurtz was placed on workers' compensation and she receives 75 percent of her salary untaxed, but can't contribute to her retirement plan, earn Social Security benefits or accrue vacation time.

The couple has $100,000 in the bank -- $66,000 from an insurance policy's dismemberment clause for her fingers. The remainder came from the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Virginia Survivors Fund.

''My wife is a casualty of war. She is a prisoner of her injuries,'' Michael Kurtz said. ``My wife will be a patient for the rest of her life.''

Cruz's co-workers come to visit at least once a week. One by one, nine of the 16 people he supervised as a civilian accountant at the Pentagon walk in. But it is only a dream. They are all dead.

Initially, the vision was calming, an affirmation that it was OK that he had survived the attack, crawling ''for I don't know how long'' through black smoke and amid voices, until a man he still does not know pulled him out of the rubble.


But soon the dream changed, and the visits ''became like nightmares.'' The employees were with a group of strangers, but only the workers were wearing numbers. And the numbers meant they would die.

He wakes shaking, said his wife, Veronica, and asks her, ``Do you have a number? What's your number?''

Cruz, who came from Puerto Rico in 1970, joined the U.S. Army and served 20 years before retiring and joining Resource Services of Washington, says the dreams have become less frequent since he was released from the hospital.

Cruz estimates he has had 25 to 30 surgeries, including skin grafts and still faces a cornea transplant, more reconstruction on his eyelids and face, and prosthetic ears.

Although he lost his eyebrows, he grins with satisfaction at the fact that his mustache survived.

His wife, a defense department employee, stays home to care for him. She still receives full pay because co-workers donate their annual leave to a fund from which she can draw. Daughter Melissa, 24, moved from Colorado to help.

One sunny day in July, Cruz went to a nearby restaurant to have dinner with other Pentagon survivors.

Everything was fine at first. But then ``everybody was talking at the same time. I couldn't handle it.''

They left. And he has left home mainly for doctor's appointments since.

But he will venture out again for the anniversary commemorations.

''I'm going to take one day at a time,'' Cruz said. ``I am still alive.''

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