Volunteer Identified Remains At Ground Zero, Will Dedicate 9/11 Memorial
A longtime funeral director is on call to identify victims in disasters around the country. By far, his biggest job was 9/11, and a series of cemetery monuments will never let him forget.
When Palatine resident Rick Lohrstorfer says a few words Sunday at the dedication of a 9/11 memorial in Ridgewood Cemetery in Des Plaines, he’ll only allow himself a brief flashback to the horrors he experienced in New York.
Lohrstorfer was called upon to help identify the victims of the terrorist attacks. A funeral director and general manager, Lohrstorfer was part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT). He worked with families still uncertain of the fate of loved ones and he worked to identify victims of the attacks through the scant remains being extracted from the rubble of the Twin Towers.
Doing a grisly job with professionalism
“We need to be ready to go within 12 to 24 hours,” Lohrstorfer said.
The chaos of 9/11 was still sorting itself out when Lohrstorfer, part of a second group of forensic workers, flew to New York eight days later. With all commercial flights grounded, the first group boarded a military transport plane escorted by fighter jets on Sept. 13.
“The immensity of the event was still developing, and we were setting up teams,” Lohrstorfer said. “Everyone started out as a missing person. People were reported missing by several different family members.”
Lohrstorfer’s group worked the overnight shift at the New York medical examiner’s office, but occasionally were assigned to duty at Ground Zero.
“The first time we went to Ground Zero, no one even spoke or talk,” he said. “You had on respiratory gear.”
The sense of destruction suggested a small nuclear weapon had detonated nearby, minus the radioactivity, to collapse a pair of 100-story buildings and surrounding structures.
“No one ever realized a plane could be that kind of a weapon," Lohrstorfer said. “Even the people who did it didn’t anticipate it.”
Lohrstorfer’s crew, which included EMS, police and fire personnel, used every means possible to identify remains, which in many cases “were almost vaporized,” he said. Employed were fingerprints, dental records and extensive use of DNA matches.
Daily distraction was needed
To distract themselves from their nightly horror shows, the crew would meet every afternoon and participate in an activity.
“We’d go for a fairly long walk in Central Park,” Lohrstorfer said. “We were the first group to visit the Empire State Building when it opened. You needed to keep yourself in balance. But you knew that’s what you were there for. That helped you stay grounded.”
Lohrstorfer came home with renewed perspective: “Live every day to its fullest; there are no guarantees,” he said.
Five years later, his family gave him a trip to see the New York he missed the first time around. He attended a Broadway show. Of course, he visited Ground Zero and was interviewed by WLS-TV’s Kevin Roy there.
“This renewed our Americanism,” he said. "America had a real awakening about what this is all about. It renewed the spirit in all of us.”
Artifact from Twin Towers included in Memorial
In 2002, the Alderwoods Group, made a commitment to construct a 9/11 memorial in each of the cemeteries it owned. Lohrstorfer was involved in designing each one and attended each dedication.
The memorial at Ridgewood will feature a relic of the Twin Towers. It's a twisted steel beam, the type of which has been distributed to fire departments and municipalities nationwide. The three- to four-foot beam will be integrated with the memorial along with photos of New York scenes. The dedication ceremony will feature an honor guard and flag ceremony.
“People can always come there,” Lohrstorfer said. “It was an honor to be a part of this team.”