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Sheila Moody's Story

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2002 – Sheila Moody doesn't mind wearing purple pressure gloves to smooth the burn scars on her hands. She just has to think of her former office mate Louise Kurtz, who lost her fingers and her ears, or the 184 people who lost their lives.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Sheila Moody, an accountant with the Army's Resource Services Washington office, survived the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon that killed 34 of her office mates. It was her second day on the job. She now wears purple compression gloves to smooth the burn scars on her hands. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"For the most part, I've had very little limitations on what I could do," Moody said. "I have to wear the gloves. Yeah, that's an inconvenience. But I have my fingers. In another month or so, I'll be able to slip my wedding ring back on. Louise will never be able to put her wedding ring back on her finger."

Moody, 43, was one of three people in her office of 34 who survived the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon. She talked about what happened that day and what it's been like for her since.

"I came into work that day at 6:30," she said. "It was my second day on the job, so I was still taking care of a lot of administrative things. I'd met Louise Kurtz in the personnel office that Monday. Both of us were starting work that day. While we were talking, I learned she used to live in Rome, N.Y.

"Her husband was in the Air Force and was stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base, where I had worked. She worked with a lot of people that I had just left two days earlier. It was really strange that she and I had kind of traveled the same circle and then both of us ended up at the Pentagon starting out that day, and that both of us survived and are here to tell the story.

"She and I had gone down to another office to turn in paperwork to get our pay started. We came back and we each went to our cubicle. She happened to bring a lot more personal items with her that day because she lived in the area. All my stuff was still up in New York. She'd brought a radio with her.

"About 9, she came to my cubicle and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center and that they had said it might have been terrorists. She left my cubicle and went around to the front near the window to the fax machine to fax some paperwork. About 10 seconds later, I heard the engine sound -- like an airplane when it's landing. Then the whole building just shook.

"A burst of hot air came through. It hit my face so hard that I shut my eyes. When I opened my eyes, a fireball was passing to the right of me so close that I could have stuck my hand out and touched it. I heard a few screams and then it was very quiet.

"It seemed everything just kind of came crashing down around me. Pieces of ceiling tiles fell on my hands. The first thing I thought was that it had been an explosion, a bomb. I got up out of my chair and started to look around for a way out.

"Everything around me was burning. Everything was on fire and I didn't even know a way out. It was just my second day there. I hadn't a clue where the closest exit was. I did remember there was a door that I believed let out to a door behind me. I turned and there was a window, so I stepped up on some debris and tried to take my hand and break the window, but it was shatterproof glass. I left a handprint of blood on the window. That's when I realized I was bleeding.

"I started thinking that I was going to die and I called out to Jesus. I spoke to the Lord and said, "I don't believe you brought me here to die like this." As soon as I spoke those words, I heard someone calling out. I said, 'I'm here' and he said, "I can't see you.'

"I said, 'I can't see you either, but we're here. Please keep coming.' The fumes and the smoke were taking a toll, and I bent over coughing. I couldn't talk so I clapped my hands and kept clapping so he'd find us." I heard a fire extinguisher and for a split second the smoke cleared and I saw a figure. I stepped over some debris, reached through the smoke, and there was a hand reaching back.

"Later, Army Sgt. Chris Braman (her rescuer) told me he had prayed and asked God to give him the strength for what he was about to do. At the same time, I was praying for a way out. He said he got me on his third time in. God had his arms around me that day.

"When I got out of the building, I heard someone call me, 'Sheila!' and I looked up and it was Louise. She was sitting in the back of a police car. She got out and came over to me. I could see that she was burned because there was a layer of skin hanging off her arm, but she wasn't bleeding. Her hair was matted like it had really singed, but other than that she looked fine."

"I was having a hard time breathing. It was really a struggle to breath and my hands were really hurting. They were bringing people out and they had set up a triage area along the road. She and I were there together and the paramedics were trying to assess who needed immediate help and who didn't. One was going to by pass Louise, and she said, 'No, I need help.'"

Kurtz had suffered burns to her face, back, legs, feet, arms and hands. She lost her fingers and thumbs to amputations necessitated by deep burns. Moody said it was as if Kurtz had been "baked by the fireball" that experts say reached as high as 1,600 degrees.

After getting Moody outdoors, Braman went back into the burning office to rescue Antoinette Sherman, an Army budget analyst who was burned over 70 percent of her body and died a week later. Braman later received the Soldier's Medal and a Purple Heart for his heroism.

Moody was hospitalized for a month, first in Arlington, and later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"While I was in the hospital, sleep came sporadically," she recalled. "I had nightmares. Once I got home, they weren't quite as bad. They got to be nightmares not about what happened, but just about dying.

"I've had some terrorist-type nightmares. I would think the whole world would have those now regardless of whether you were there or not, just from the images that you've seen. People were just inundated. I would think even people who weren't directly impacted would have a tough time sleeping."

When U.S. forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Moody said she had mixed emotions.

"My initial thought was that we want justice, not revenge. We only know the information the media give us. If the information they have says these are the people responsible, then yes, justice needs to be served. But at the cost of more American lives? That's the part that you struggle with. You don't want to see innocent people hurt, because that makes us no better than the terrorists."

Moody said she took heart from all the cards and letters people sent, particularly school children, and by a trip back to Rome, N.Y., where she'd lived for nearly six years before taking her new job at the Pentagon. Two of her three children were attending college near there.

"They let me go home from Walter Reed for a weekend," Moody said. "So we drove up to New York and the town gave us a hero's welcome. We got off the interstate and there was an entourage of firemen and policemen and an ambulance and a limousine waiting for us that escorted us all the way back to our house. That just blew me away.

"When I think about it, it was just so awesome because, we were in a town where there weren't very many African Americans at all. My husband was the only African American I think they ever had in the volunteer fire department. My daughter was the only African American in her graduating high school class.

"For them to do that for me, people that for the most part, I didn't even think knew that I existed -- to think that they cared enough. It was raining and they were lined up on the streets with signs saying, 'We love you. We're praying for you. Welcome back.' It was amazing.

Born in Severn, Md., Moody began working for the Army at Fort Meade, Md., as a clerk typist right out of high school. She married a soldier and moved with him to Germany. Returning to the states, the family lived in Virginia until her husband left the military. The family moved back to Maryland and Moody went back to work at Fort Meade's finance office.

During a consolidation, the finance office moved to Rome, N.Y., so Moody packed up her family and moved to New York. In July 2001, she was selected for a job at the Pentagon. She returned to her new job at Resource Services, Headquarters, Department of the Army, full time in January.

"My initial reaction was that I didn't want to come back," she admitted. "I thought about going back to New York. My first inclination was to go back to my old employer and ask for my job back. We had an offer on our house there, but we hadn't settled yet.

"My husband and I were out walking one night and I was thinking, 'I don't know if I should go back. What do we do?' My husband said, 'You know, if the Lord didn't want you to have that job and did not want you to be there, he didn't have to allow a plane to crash into the building to keep you out.'

"I said, 'I guess you're right.' For whatever reason, I was supposed to be there. The Lord had put all of those steps in place that led me there. I was supposed to be there, but I was supposed to survive. So, I'm here until he says it's time for me to move.

"That's the way I had to approach this. I was supposed to be there and those events were supposed to happen to me. I can't take this blessing of my life that God has given me, and turn and run and hide with it. I have to stand here and show the world how blessed I am and how marvelous the Lord is.

"Coming back to the Pentagon was very challenging. My second day back to work was probably my worst. My first day back mirrored Sept. 10, when I'd reported in. I went to a new office and met all new people. So when I came back in November, I went to a new office and I met all new people. It was almost like dj vu. So, when the second day came around, the closer it got to 9 o'clock, the more I could feel the anxiety building up inside me.

"My husband had called to see if I was OK and I told him I was having a tough time. I could feel the panic starting to set in. He said, 'Call your shrink.' They had assigned me a psychologist at Walter Reed. I told him I had to depend on the Lord and he said, 'Sometimes the Lord sends us other people that help us out.' I said, 'Yeah, you're right so I called him, but he wasn't there.

"Lo and behold, my boss calls me into her office to talk and to go over some procedures and things in the office. By the time she finished talking, it was 10 o'clock, so I was distracted long enough not to sit there and feel that anxiety and that panic looking at the clock. I was able to focus on something else. I take that as the Lord saying, 'Don't worry about the shrink, I'll take care of you and send someone else.

Now that it's nearly a year since the attack, Moody said, planes flying overhead aren't as frightening as they were at first.

"I live in Maryland a few miles from Baltimore Washington International Airport, so there are airplanes flying over all day long. Initially, I was very paranoid, very aware. My heart would skip a beat every time I would look up and see an airplane. Then when they have those fighter jets take off, it really gets your heart going. My heart doesn't skip a beat so much anymore."

The day of the attack was a beautiful day, without a cloud in the perfect blue sky. Moody said such days now give her a sense of foreboding.

"When we have bright sunny days like that, that are similar to that day, it's kind of an eerie feeling. Like maybe you anticipate something terrible happening on a beautiful day now."

Moody, and her husband, Vincent, will attend the Sept. 11 commemoration ceremony at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

"I'm not really sure how I'll feel," she said. "I don't know what to expect. My family and I debated whether to attend the ceremony or just stay at home, or get up and go on with our lives as if it's a normal day. Then we thought about it, and we agreed to mark the first anniversary with some sort of observance. So we're going to go to the ceremony at the Phoenix site and then we're going to the evening ceremony that they're having at Constitution Hall."

Surviving the horrific attack, Moody said, has strengthened and deepened her faith. "There is nothing that you and God can't do to survive something like that," she said. "It strengthened my faith that my life is in God's hands. Whatever his will is for me, it's OK.

"I also have a deeper appreciation for life and for people in general. All this day-to-day stuff we get caught up in, trying to make a living and trying to have a nice car and a big house with nice furniture, all that is just fluff. All that stuff can be taken away in the twinkling of an eye. What matters (are) family and the things that you do as a child of God, and the things that you do for God are the things that really matter.

Moody doesn't want those who were severely injured in the attack to be forgotten.

"The world doesn't need to forget about them," she said. "There was a lady who was very severely burned and I remember seeing her on TV the day that she went home, but I haven't heard anything more about her. Don't forget about Juan and Louise, whose lives will never be the same.

"They didn't lose their lives, but their lives will never be the same. Juan now has to have a very large font and hold it very close or use a magnifying glass to read. Just a few weeks ago, Louise got prosthetic ears. I think that must have been a joyous time for her. Her husband was able to go out and buy her some gold earrings.

"We remember those who were lost and we remember the heroes. We also need to remember the long road of recovery for those who survived, but were so severely injured. For them, to go back to life the way it was Sept. 10, will never happen."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSheila Moody tells Joyce Rumsfeld about the soldier, her "angel," who rescued her following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the Pentagon. Rumsfeld, wife of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, visited Arlington (Va.) Hospital Sept. 13 to thank hospital staff and meet victims receiving treatment. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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