DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. —
Following the tragedy of 9/11, Americans expressed their grief and demonstrated their patriotism to the nation in many ways. Inside the walls of a then much smaller, older mortuary facility, the men and women of the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, looked for their own way to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11 and those who followed.
The remains of the 188 victims from the Pentagon were brought to the mortuary for identification and prepared for return to their loved ones.
What is referred to as a sendoff started with the salutes of six people who would line up on each side of the hearse before it leaves the mortuary parking lot. This simple act is part of a reverse dignified transfer. It was a way for the team to show respect and to honor the person leaving, explained Bill Zwicharowski.
"It's so healthy for all the people in the building to go out," said Zwicharowski. "We get to see the end result and the tear in the escort's eye and know this is why we do what we do. It's very therapeutic."
At a time when they worked extremely long hours, people would stop what they were doing to go out for a sendoff. There was an obligation to pay tribute, but no one person had to do it. It was by choice.
Sendoffs occurred all hours of the day and night. Zwicharowski said he was proud to see two reservists came in at 3 a.m., specifically for a sendoff.
"It was impressive that it was the only reason they came in that early," he said.
He was touched by those caring for the fallen and some of the behind-the-scenes stories of the victims. With one little boy, and his story, the tribute grew.
In the older facility, personal effects were on sheets and workers had to walk by them often, said Zwicharowski. There was a boy's single sneaker, just one. A week had passed and nothing had been added.
The boy was a passenger on American Flight 77, Sept. 11, 2001, on his way to a trip with National Geographic. As the team would pass by the sneaker, they would talk and learn more and more of his story and love of basketball.
To this day, the embalmer remembers a note to the boy from his brother thanking him for backing him up on the playground. The family asked for that note and a basketball to be placed in the casket.
When it came time for his sendoff, there were more than six people.
"The line became the whole driveway," Zwicharowski said.
From that day, and some days more than a dozen times at the height of the war, an announcement is made in the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs when it is time to pay tribute to the fallen: "All available personnel please come to the front for a sendoff." In some cases escorts waiting for other fallen service members will join the ranks of those showing respect.
Since that day, a casket hasn't left the mortuary without being saluted. Rain or shine, what started with only six people years ago has grown close to as many as 100 people paying tribute - a simple pause to honor these heroes and send them off to their final resting place.