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A Survivor of Sept. 11 Attack on the Pentagon Tells His Story - 2002-06-28

On September 11 last year, terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, and another into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crash-landed in rural Pennsylvania. Altogether, approximately 3,000 people were killed.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Brian Birdwell remembers walking down a corridor in the Pentagon when a hijacked plane slammed into the building about 50 meters away from him.

"I heard the sound [of the plane crashing into the building], and it's louder than anything I could describe to you. In a nano-second [micro-second], I was thinking, 'bomb,' because I had just seen the World Trade Center and what was going on there in New York. I knew 'this is not a normal sound.' I went from a well lit, lighted corridor knowing exactly where I was going, to an immediately dark corridor. I had no orientation where I was going. I was on fire. Inhaling all of the crud [dirt] that I was inhaling, I was asphyxiating my body at the same time expending all of that energy, trying to get to my feet. My balance was way out of whack from a concussion."

Colonel Birdwell, who is a devout Christian, said that, staggering in that Pentagon hallway, his body on fire, and surrounded by fire and smoke from the explosion, he started to pray.

"At that point, I cried out in a very loud voice, 'Jesus, 'I'm coming to see you.' I collapsed to the floor, and I thought, 'Okay, Lord, come on.' Shortly thereafter, I felt a liquid running down my face. I thought, 'It's not warm. It's not blood.' But it was water. The sprinkler system functioned very well, thank goodness."

Colonel Birdwell said the sprinkler system put out the fire on his body - and cleared the thick smoke in the hallway. Someone found him and led him out of the building. His face and body were badly burned. He describes his hands as looking like "melting wax," and remembers a friend checking his identification tag to see who he was.

Colonel Birdwell was taken by helicopter to the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., where doctors specialize in burn victim surgery.

"I really wasn't worried about pain at that moment. It was really more just saying prayers, 'God, get me through this, keep me alive, get me to the hospital.' Going through an experience like this, particularly at the moment of impact, when I was on fire and on my own, you get your strength from your faith. That's what got me out of the building, got me through not just the events of that day, but the twelve weeks in the hospital, the surgeries, the [skin replacement surgeries] graftings, the things that are physically painful, physically draining, emotionally draining. Plus you have to have a sense of humor. So in hindsight, looking at the important moments in my recovery, it's nice to look back at the maggots they had to put on me to get rid of the infection. At the time, it wasn't very pleasant."

Baroch: "A treatment with maggots. What's that all about?"
Birdwell: "Your skin is actually your first line of defense and your immune system. When you lose all of that skin, plus you're in an environment that's very dirty, fuel vapor, the debris, the materials that have been burned, you're susceptible to infection. I had a great amount of infection. At some point, the doctors can not get all of the fine infection. They'd have to gut [tear you apart] you like a fish to get rid of all of the infection. They need to leave good tissue in place. So God's little creations are the maggots. They eat the dead flesh and leave the good stuff. So when the maggots were done, three days I had these things on me, after about the third day when they were fat, you could see them crawling over you. You think, 'That's pretty neat,' you know."

Baroch: "Your face obviously has some disfigurement. Tops of both ears are missing. There's scarring on the neck. How has that affected you psychologically?"

Birdwell: "Having gone through what I've gone through, when I see all my scars in the mirror or during bandage changes with my wife daily, I think about the scars that other people have, that their bodies weren't injured but their family members were killed. So I'll never forget about it, but it's not the center of gravity of who I am. But I'm not too worried about exactly how good-looking I'm going to look after all this is done. I'm just thankful to be alive."

The army officer still wears bandages up and down his arms and hands and across his forehead. He is scheduled for additional surgery to help the burn wounds heal. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Birdwell, one of the survivors of the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.