9/11 Survivor Returns to Tell Story of Hope
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 11, 2007 Minutes after terrorists slammed a hijacked commercial airliner into the Pentagon six years ago today, Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell thought he was going to die.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, a Pentagon survivor of the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, speaks to a packed auditorium during a memorial service Sept. 11, 2007. Birdwell lived through burns over 60-percent of his body and excruciating physical therapy to eventually begin a ministry that helps burn victims and wounded servicemembers. Defense dept. photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, U.S. Navy
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Birdwell laid burning and bleeding on the second floor at the intersection of the 4th corridor and the E Ring, only yards from where the nose of the plane penetrated the walls. More than 60 percent of his body was blistered, his lungs were seared and he couldn’t stand.
Birdwell said he made his peace with God, and gave up the fight for survival.
But he didn’t die.
Not then, nor hours later when he thought he might in the emergency room. Not six days later when Birdwell said his final goodbyes to his 12-year-old son because chances of his survival were not even one percent.
Now recovered, retired and living in Texas, Birdwell returned today to the Pentagon to tell his story of survival, hope and spiritual growth.
“This is the place that the Lord spared my life,” he said when asked about how it felt to return.
“We’re here to remember those that were lost and those who are serving because of those lost. So it’s a great day to be back in the building,” Birdwell said.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in the Pentagon auditorium, Birdwell good-naturedly made light of the extent of his injuries that day.
While lying on the floor after the explosion, waiting to die, “Instead of hearing ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” all I got was just more well done,” he joked.
But the humor was no cover for the emotion in his voice when he earlier described lying in the darkness and screaming to Jesus, saying “I’m coming to see you.”
Birdwell said the blast was not like those pictured in Hollywood movies, in which characters are able to see a ball of flame coming toward them and make a conscious decision to evade its blast.
“There was just that nanosecond between hearing the sound and then the concussion, the blast, the fire,” Birdwell said. “I was tossed around like rag doll. The next thing I know is I’m trying to get up. It’s black except for the ambient light of fires. I’m on fire. I got to my knees once.”
After the blast, unable to stand and unsure of which direction in the darkness to take, Birdwell said he collapsed to the floor and waited for “that feeling of the soul departing the body.”
“It didn’t come. I was like ‘Okay, Lord, I’m still waiting. I’m ready,” he said.
Instead, Birdwell said he started feeling cold water dripping on his face. It was coming from the sprinkler system and extinguished the fire on his body.
Minutes later Birdwell was able to open his eyes and he saw the reflection of some lights down the 4th corridor. Leaning against the wall for balance, he staggered a few yards toward the light.
Fires were burning and debris was scattered everywhere. Smoke was pouring down the hallway. Birdwell’s access badge and name tag were melted, he was covered in blood, and his clothes were literally burned from his back.
“I didn’t know what was ahead of me but I knew that I needed to get moving,’ he said.
At the C Ring door, he saw some friends.
“In that moment of relief that there were people there I just … collapsed in front of them,” Birdwell said.
The four carried him to what had become a hasty triage area and an Air Force doctor gave him a shot of morphine and an IV. Both were given in his feet, because his feet weren’t burned.
From there, Birdwell was taken by golf-cart out of the Pentagon, to an SUV, and was rushed to Georgetown University Hospital. He was later flown, once airspace was no longer restricted, to Washington Hospital Center.
He spent the next 92 days there undergoing excruciating treatments, physical therapy and surgeries. In all Birdwell has had 39 surgeries ranging from those that were lifesaving, to reconstruction for his face and ears.
Birdwell said there is no way to describe the pain that a burn victim goes through during recovery.
“You’re like a cracker. Everything’s crisp. Nothing wants to bend,” he said. “There is no medication that makes you comfortable. There is medication that steps you back from the edge of the Grand Canyon, that makes it quasi-tolerable, but much of what has to be done to you is pretty painful.”
“With that (tracheotomy) in your throat there’s no air going over your vocal cords. The Lord’s the only one that can hear you screaming in your mind,” Birdwell said.
Of the nine that were sent to the burn unit that day, only two were expected to live. Eight survived, he said.
Birdwell joked about seeing one of his fellow burn victims for the first time in the hospital.
“I remember the first day I saw John [Yates] in physical therapy and I looked at him and said what in the ‘blank’ happened to him. And then John looked at me and said the same thing,” Birdwell said.
Remarkably, Birdwell returned to work the following March, although he only worked a few hours a day, two days a week. By his own account, he didn’t contribute much to the office, but it was the principle behind his going to work that made him make the trip.
Just walking in and out of the building daily was exhausting, he said, because of permanent lung damage caused by the smoke and the jet fuel vapors.
“The first day I came in … I had to sit on the bench for 10 minutes because I was huffing and puffing,” he said.
But it was the memories of his two coworkers who died in the attack that kept him persistent, Birdwell said.
“I wanted to be back in the building. I wanted to have that sense of purpose and mission of getting better, being part of the team. Two of my coworkers were never going to come back in. and by the lord’s grace I was coming back in,” Birdwell said.
One day, during his early days of painful physical therapy, a pastor told him that “God never wastes our pain.” At the time, the words were disregarded because Birdwell’s focus was on the pain and getting through the therapy.
But later, in 2002, a young man was badly burned and the Washington Hospital Center burn unit called Birdwell asking if he would visit to encourage the patient.
That was when the pastor’s words rang true for Birdwell, and his painful experiences began shaping the direction for the rest of his life.
The former Field Artillery officer eventually got his strength back, adding more days and longer hours and then back to his regular to his schedule. But, as his retirement approached, the couple struggled with the decision to stay in, or retire from the Army. Physical disabilities would keep Birdwell from being promoted, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to serve from behind a desk.
He retired July 1, 2004, and, with his wife, Mel, began Face the Fire Ministries, a nonprofit organization that serves critical burn survivors and wounded servicemembers.
“An 80-ton 757 came through at 530 miles an hour with 3,000 pounds of jet fuel and I’m still here and the plane isn’t,” Birdwell said. “You don’t’ survive that because the Army made you tough. You survive it because the Lord’s got something else in mind for you.”
A self-described “crispy, old guy,” Birdwell said he now enjoys visiting wounded servicemembers. On his trip from Dallas to Washington for the ceremony, he stopped a servicemember in the airport to shake his hand.
“To go see young men and women who have willingly said, ‘Send me,’ is a great opportunity to say ‘Thank you,’” he said.
Now, Birdwell lives relatively pain free, is busy with his ministry, his son just started college, and they are just “normal folks.”
Even so, the family has a greater appreciation for life, he said.
“We always understand what’s most important because we’ve had a very graphic reminder of how precious life is,” Birdwell said.
This has started a very intentional tradition for Birdwell, his wife and son. One that in six years, they have protected. One that, before Sept. 11, 2001, was not given much thought.
“When we are going to be apart, we always make sure we very clearly say goodbye. That way there is always that last remembered moment,” he said.