William Zwicharowski of Magnolia takes pride in the fact that he conducted 46 of the 50 services that occurred in Blossburg, Pa., during the five years that he ran his own funeral home there. It is, he says, the most personal kind of work. In a small community where he was in constant contact with friends and family of the deceased, the work could often be too personal.
So 22 years ago Zwicharowski, a former U.S. Marine, sold the home and became a mortuary specialist for the military. Twelve years ago he landed at Dover Air Force Base, where he is now branch chief for port mortuary operations. As such, he receives the bodies of many of the servicemen and women killed in the line of duty. Yet nothing in his experience prepared him for the logistical or emotional challenges of 9/11.
On Sept. 12, 2001, the tiny Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at DAFB began to receive the remains of the 184 victims of the al-Qaida attack on the Pentagon. Those remains came badly charred or in pieces. Some belonged to Pentagon personnel, people who, like Zwicharowski, understood and accepted the risks of military service. But some of those remains also belonged to innocent civilians, including women and children, who had boarded American Airlines Flight 77, only to be killed in an act of terrorism.
“That was difficult for me,” Zwicharowski says. “You’re used to the battlefield. This was different.” Perhaps most upsetting was handling the remains of the hijackers themselves. The United States had resolved to take the high road in handling them, but Zwicharowski couldn’t help having mixed feelings.
Though he tried to avoid associating the bodies with the stories he’d heard about the attack’s victims, it was impossible not to get attached. One of the most touching stories was that of a 12-year-old boy who had received an award from the National Geographic Society to study in California. “I wish I never knew,” Zwicharowski says, shaking his head. With two young children of his own, he felt a special empathy. “I carry that with me.”
Ten years later, Zwicharowski remains impressed by the sense of duty felt by the 5,000 base personnel and the hundreds of active military and reservists from across the country who reported to Dover to order caskets, to press American flags, to coordinate transportation, to help with the grisly, weeks-long task of receiving and identifying body parts—in short, do whatever it took to prepare the remains and see them safely to their families.
Zwicharowski recently traveled from Kuwait to track remains of fallen heroes from there, through Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, to Dover. Along the way he met the men and women who perform such tasks as icing the bodies to make sure they arrive in good condition for embalming. The trip increased his respect for those who safeguard the dead.
Today he remains grateful for the support of the USO and for the letters and cards sent to the base by local schoolchildren. He recalls the heightened feeling of patriotism for a few weeks immediately after the attack. He can still feel the impact of his family’s visit to Ground Zero.
Bodies still come to him in Dover, victims of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that have arisen directly from the 9/11 attacks. In the end, it’s faith and the love of his family that helps him.
“You hug your kids a little tighter,” Zwicharowski says. “My time with my family is more important than ever.”