“It took years for me to really be able to talk about it without showing emotion,” she said. “And even now, I slow myself down, because what happened is just unimaginable.” Melissa Cruz was working as a business analyst in Colorado on September 11, 2001, many miles away from the terrible events of the day, but her family was not. Both of Melissa’s parents were government employees working in the Pentagon on the morning that would change the world.
While it’s been twenty years since 9/11, our memories are clear. Melissa shared her memories of reaching and then reuniting with her parents and younger sister and recovering together at Fisher House.
Melissa immediately knew that she had to get home to Northern Virginia when she heard the news about the plane striking the Pentagon. She worried about both of her parents and what would happen to her teenage sister, Marissa.
As she made her way across the country, she was able to learn that her mother, Veronica Cruz, an Army veteran, was able to walk away from the building. She worked in a part of the Pentagon that didn’t receive direct impact, but her father, Juan Cruz-Santiago, an Army retiree, worked on the outer ring in an office that overlooked what was then the Pentagon helipad. He suffered serious burns and was immediately hospitalized.
A chance meeting on public transportation led the Cruz family to the Fisher House. When Veronica shared her story with a stranger that day, the woman, Sandra Barrett, who worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, asked for her number. Perhaps the stress of the moment took its toll because despite being a private person, Veronica shared it.
“And that's how miraculously we came to know that there was even an option,” explained Melissa.
The following day, Veronica and Marissa each packed a backpack and were leaving to be with Juan when Sandra called. Sandra told the Cruz family there was a room for them at Fisher House and they could stay as long as they needed. The two made their way to Juan at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and stayed at the Fisher House while Melissa continued her trip home from Colorado. She wouldn’t see her family until September 14.
The Cruz family remained near the hospital because of the seriousness of Juan’s injuries. Marissa remained out of school for five weeks so she could be close to her father during this precarious time. Melissa valued being so close to her father at the Fisher House since the three of them would take turns visiting and staying with him from early in the morning until late at night.
She laughed as she recalled reading him Harry Potter books and keeping him posted on current celebrity gossip like the status of Jennifer Lopez’s marriage.
“Vivian, who ran Fisher House, gave you the feeling, of just come as you are, we'll take you,” said Melissa. “She brought comfort in such a chaotic time.”
“Even though we were at the hospital all day, more often than not there would be fresh goodies or treats set out in the kitchen when we got back at night, which made it feel home-like,” Marissa recalled.
The Cruz family stayed in the Fisher House from September 12 until December 11 when Juan was released from the hospital and able to go home.
Always a close family, the Cruz family credits Fisher House with helping them stay together during Juan’s hospitalization. Today, he is doing well and because of his extensive surgeries, Melissa says they call him “the billion-dollar man.”
Although there is never a need for families to pay for their time staying at a Fisher House, each year Melissa donates proceeds from the sale of a homemade patriotic wreath through her business Coronas by Cruz (https://www.coronasbycruz.com/) to Fisher House Foundation. Marissa has also raised money for the past several years when running the Marine Corps Marathon. Juan and Veronica proudly donate as well.
“A lot of his healing is because of the support he had,” said Melissa. “And a lot of our healing is because we did it together. We were never alone.”