Juan Cruz remembers an explosion, smoke and darkness, and a light to sanctuary above him.
He remembers terrible pain as a man in a firefighter’s helmet rescued him from the confusion. And he remembers lying in a hospital unable to see or speak for months as nurses and doctors fussed over him.
Mr. Cruz, 52, a supervisor in the Pentagon’s installation accounting division, was in the building the day a hijacked plane crashed into the building. It left the Woodbridge man burned and gasping for air.
“Suddenly, the room was black and there was smoke everywhere,” he said yesterday at the Washington Hospital Center, where burn victims from September 11 and the medical staff held a reunion. “I shouted, ‘Help me, help me,’ while I was trying to get on the floor. I was struggling to see anything.”
But he was stuck in the dark and debris. When he reached for a man coming toward him with a light, Mr. Cruz burned his hands as he tried to push himself to freedom. The man whom he wishes he knew so he could thank him set him free.
“I don’t remember much after that, except that I was in pain,” he recalled. “Someone was holding my hand and praying. I was taken to a helicopter, and the next thing I remember, I woke up in the hospital.”
Mr. Cruz was one of a half-dozen burn victims who joined their doctors, nurses and other support personnel for a “Tribute to Heroes” reception, a chance to eat barbecue and hug each other.
“We believe in what we do here, but it is nice to see the results,” Joanie Menser, a nurse who took care of Mr. Cruz, said after she hugged him yesterday. “Part of our job is to give a jolt from behind. The other part is to give faith.”
Mr. Cruz lay in the hospital for months. For about seven weeks, his eyes were sutured shut. Much of that time, he couldn’t speak.
Mr. Cruz suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his hands and face. He has had almost 30 surgeries, including numerous skin grafts and one to reconstruct his eyelids.
These days, his skin is red and puffy. Mr. Cruz wears black gloves over his bandaged hands that apply pressure to reduce swelling and increase healing. He often wears a plastic mask. His vision is still not 100 percent. He can only use a few fingers.
“The recovery period is one to two years,” said his wife, Veronica. “And we don’t know where we will be then.”
But one doctor is certain Mr. Cruz and other burn victims will be well.
“They have showed unfailing determination to get well,” said Dr. Marion Jordan, director of the burn center. “They will all return to relatively normal and functional lifestyles.”
“There wasn’t anyone that wasn’t touched by this,” he said.
Mrs. Cruz agrees. “It altered our life,” she said.
“We set goals. For example, we said that when he spoke again, our [14-year-old] daughter would go back to school. Seven weeks later, she did. We will continue to set goals.”