Thursday, September 5, 2002
Recovery worker who rushed to Pentagon
crash site said her faith helped her through emotional weeks that followed
By Richard Szczepanowski
Less than 30 minutes after terrorists slammed a hijacked plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 189 people, Cindy Álvarez was on the scene to begin what she would later call a "sacred duty" to help in the clean-up effort at the building.
Álvarez, a special agent with the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), was on assignment in Rockville when the call came that morning to report to the Pentagon.
"We flew to the Pentagon," Álvarez said referring to the fact that she and fellow agent Andrea Hosken had to speed on the Beltway and Route 395 to get to the crash site. "It was horrible to see the Pentagon burning, to see the pain, the horror. The first thing I thought was, 'How dare anyone attack the Pentagon? How dare anyone attack America?' and then I thought, 'My God, there are people in there.'"
Álvarez, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, worked with the FBI and the Major Case Response Team. She said that during her work at the crash site, the Pentagon "smelled of death... and chemicals."
She said that she and fellow recovery workers had to sift through "giant mountains of rubble."
"We had to sift very slowly and very carefully because everything was evidence," Álvarez recalled. "We had a sacred job to do. We were all proud to serve our country, and to serve our agency."
Álvarez said she and her fellow workers sorted through debris from collapsed Pentagon walls and pieces of the hijacked airplane. They found the box cutters used by the hijackers to commandeer the plane, identification papers, money, jewelry, and body parts.
"These pieces of bodies, we treated like precious treasure," Álvarez said. "We knew this was somebody's family member. We knew they were waiting for the bodies to be returned so they could bury them properly and begin the healing process."
Álvarez said one of the disturbing aspects of her job was recovering the items of children who had been on board the plane. "It was upsetting to find children's shoes, their little suitcases and their stuffed animals," she said.
She also recalled participating in the recovery of the body of a friend of hers.
"I entered the Pentagon once. The one person we pulled out whose body was intact was a friend of mine. His uniform was perfect. His ribbons, his belt and his shoes were clean. I thought, 'How befitting a hero.' I said a prayer over him, and then they zipped up his body bag."
Picking up body parts, and pieces of aircraft at the Pentagon, Álvarez said she would pray, "Help me Jesus. Please don't let me cry yet, because I will never stop, my mask will fog up and I have a lot of work to do here."
It was her faith in Jesus, she added, that gave her strength during those emotionally and physically draining weeks of "14-hour shifts, in the hot sun, wearing hotter Tyvek suits (sanitary jumpsuits used to protect recovery workers from hazardous materials), boots, gloves, masks and hepa filters."
"I wore my Miraculous Medal every day and I had my rosary in my Tyvek suit. I carried Jesus with me into the rubble, and I would pray, 'Please make me strong, Jesus, not just for me, but for my fellow agents.'"
She said that as she went about her duties, "I got madder and madder the more I found things." She said she sought out a chaplain on duty at the Pentagon site and went to Confession there amid the rubble.
"I was angry and I did not want to let this turn me into something ugly," Álvarez said. "I was right there at the rubble pile and I thought, 'Here I am in the bowels of hell, where are the hijackers?' "
Mass was also celebrated for recovery workers in a special tent set up at the rubble pile. There she attended Mass with clean-up personnel from the FBI, the Army, Navy and Air Force. The first Mass she attended on the Saturday evening after the attacks was in a tent in front of the Pentagon. She was called on to serve as a lector at the Mass.
"We comforted one another in the sanctuary of that holy tent," Álvarez said of that first emotional Mass.
Álvarez said she learned to see God's presence in the little acts of kindness that were offered to her and other rescue and recovery workers. She said she is grateful for the early morning coffee and donuts and cupcakes that people would bring to the recovery workers.
"The Salvation Army and the Red Cross had volunteers set up who gave us hot breakfast, dry socks, dry underwear, Gatorade, water, whatever we needed," she said. "At lunch time they would give us food, and they would give us the cards and notes that schoolchildren and others were sending to us. We would be searching for body parts, and then when we sat down for lunch there would be a card saying, 'Dear Rescue Worker, thank you. We love you.' We knew that they appreciated us doing our job."
"This was sacred work. Even out of something so horrific, there was holiness. How could we have found so much if God was not there? He helped us every step of the way," Álvarez added. She said she also found strength in attending Mass at her Northwest Washington parish.
"It was a great comfort to be in church with people who were praying for me and all the recovery workers, for the dead, for the mourning," she said.
She said she felt especially close to God "during those days when I was breaking my back with the shovels and rakes in the rubble pile. I would pray, 'Jesus, I'm hurt. I'm tired. I'm in pain. But, I know others are also hurt and tired and in pain. Help me, Jesus, to be strong for them.' "
She also had praise for her fellow recovery workers.
"I haven't heard anyone asking for extra pay, days off, recognition, a special medal of valor or distinguished service award. My fellow agents - NCIS men and women - willingly and without hesitation did what had to be done," she said. She called the recovery workers a "law enforcement family" and said she was "proud to be bonded with them."
She said that while her participation in the recovery efforts was "the hardest work - physically and emotionally - I've ever done, I do not regret being there."
To mark the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Álvarez said will attend early morning Mass because "my first priority will be to pray for those who died and those who were left behind, then I will go to work and honor them by doing a good job."
Álvarez said that she does not believe the hard work she and her fellow workers performed classifies them as heroes.
"We're not heroes. We're just human beings doing our jobs," she said. "The people who died are heroes. The people who were left behind are heroes. The people who can forgive and love like Jesus are the heroes."