Memories of 9/11 resonate with Dover Port Mortuary staff

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- A decade ago less than a dozen people worked in a modest building that sat on a few acres of land behind the fence at the end of Atlantic Avenue.

That's how William Zwicharowski described the facility where the solemn duty of honoring the fallen was performed. Zwicharowski, an embalmer at the time, is one of the few employees who still support this sacred mission 10 years later.

Although the tragic loss associated with war isn't new to the people who have the honor of caring for the fallen, they were about to experience some changes.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 brought the tragedy to that modest building with the remains of the 184 U.S. lives lost at the Pentagon.

"Disaster is no stranger to Dover," said Zwicharowski. "And no death is any more or less important than another, but the Pentagon incident was especially challenging due to the fact that we had women and children along with Soldiers, Sailors and civil servants. What made it worse was that we had the remains of the terrorists who planned and executed that cowardly act.

"Everyone remembers the solemn sound of the helicopters flying over Dover, carrying the remains of the victims to Dover Air Force Base," he said. "That sound, that sight, took the nightmare from our televisions to reality here at Dover. It was here and it was real."

The reality invoked reactions and emotions no one could expect.

"I'll never forget that day," said Kevin McGarrigle, a technical operations officer. "I thought a pilot had somehow lost control of his plane and flew into one of the towers. When I watched the second plane hit, we all knew it was no accident. Once the shock of what just happened subsided, the only emotion I felt was anger."

In a matter of days the support staff increased to more than 150 personnel.

"Since there was a finite amount of space in the old mortuary for people to work, we had to rent four mobile home trailers to handle the overflow of administrative and operations staff, FBI and Medical Examiner personnel," said McGarrigle, who was instrumental in spinning up telephone and information technology systems with the help and support of the 436th Communications Squadron.

"Most of what happened that first week following the attack is a blur now," he said. "But I can tell you that being a part of that event was therapeutic for me, it made me feel like I was contributing to the fight against those that had attacked us - and that meant a lot."

Deb Murphy, an administrative assistant, joined the staff following 9/11 and saw the transformation.

The number of war fallen who passed through Dover increased after the onset of the war on terror.

To meet the demand, a new facility was built and in 2003, the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs replaced the 48-year old building that once housed the mission.

"Looking back, the old mortuary was, in nearly every aspect quite primitive compared to the new facility," said McGarrigle. "However, I'm sure those who worked there would not have traded the experience for anything, and those that did work in the old place wear that experience like a badge of honor."

Tracking remains changed from word documents, spreadsheets and databases to a state-of-the-art Mortuary Operations Management System. Technology improved from wet film x-rays to digital imagery and the mission that once was assigned to the 436th Services Squadron became its own unit when Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations in 2008.

What didn't change was the professionalism of the people who work here and the way in which each fallen service member is cared for.

"We still have active duty and reservists who come in and work side by side with us," said Murphy.

The meticulous detail they put into their work in honoring and preparing the fallen is an duty they proudly take on.

"The fallen who come through our doors always have been, and always will be treated with the utmost dignity, honor and respect," said McGarrigle.

"It has been a tremendous experience for me," said Murphy. "It is an honor to know we do our best to give the families peace of mind when we are able to get the fallen heroes home quicker to their loved ones."

"I want the families of the victims of 9/11 to know that although we will never know your pain, Dover Air Force Base feels some of your pain, of all the families of the victims, who pass through our doors," said Zwicharowski.

Since 9/11, the remains of 6,889 fallen have passed though Dover.

The impact on the nation was drastic, but it was also a reminder to Americans to hold dear the freedom they value.

"If the terrorists who planned and committed that cowardly act think that they have diminished us or degraded us in any way, they are wrong, said Zwicharowski.

"If we have learned to appreciate our freedom, pray and thank God more, if we get goose bumps when we say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem, or if we hug our children more often or tighter, then they didn't win," he said. "We did!"