Hope Breathes Beneath Wounds
Bodies Ravaged by Terrorism, Survivors Savor the Small Steps
By Donna St. George Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2001; Page A01
It took 64 days for Louise Kurtz to see the sun again. She had not imagined, from her bed in intensive care, how sweet the moment would be. It came unexpectedly one day when she came upon a window in a hospital hallway. Outside, the leaves were flecks of red and yellow and brown, a brilliant patchwork on sunlit trees. It was warm, but autumn had come. "It's so beautiful," she whispered to her husband as he pressed his face next to hers.
Until then, the larger world had all but faded for Louise Kurtz – time virtually stopping the moment that she managed to escape the burning Pentagon, but not the harm and horror of its flames. When doctors examined her wounded body that day, they found that nearly 70 percent of it had been burned.
For Kurtz, the toll of Sept. 11 was unclear for a very long time.
It was much the same in the next room, and the next, and across the way, because all of those severely burned at the Pentagon ended up here at Washington Hospital Center, the region's long-established burn-treatment facility.
In all, they were just seven men and women, not the many dozens or hundreds that doctors had expected.
But for Washington, these scarred survivors became the truest living vision of the terror and torment suffered by so many on the day of the attacks.
They lost pieces of their skin, patches of their hair, parts of their ears. They lost the use of their lungs. They lost days – many, many days – when instead of eating dinner with friends or raking leaves in the yard, they lay in bed, attached to blinking monitors.
In this kind of netherworld, they have endured a combined 105 surgeries, with spouses sleeping in waiting rooms and children calling for missing parents and pastors clutching trembling hands to pray.
For many weeks, theirs was a fragile existence apart from the outside world – not dead, yet not fully saved.
The good times came when a patient spoke a first sentence. Took breaths without a ventilator. Walked from a room into a hallway. But there were setbacks that followed many bursts of progress – infections, pneumonia, even cardiac arrest.
So many chances to die, even after so much hope.
This was more real than they could bear on the September day that one of them slipped away, right in the intensive-care unit. Antoinette Sherman, 36, an Army budget analyst who had extensive smoke inhalation injuries, never made it through her second week.
The other families were heavy with grief.
For no one here forgets that so many at the Pentagon never even made it to a hospital. Close friends are dead, and bosses and co-workers, too.
There is a purple Mylar balloon floating in the corner of Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell's hospital room. It says "Happy Birthday" in festive letters, a leftover from the November day he turned 40 – here, amid crisp, white sheets and sterile bandages.
John Yates can tell his story. Once he could not. For weeks, he said nothing to anyone, not even Ellen, his wife. He could not watch the news. When after almost a month he finally saw a picture of the gaping gash in the Pentagon, he was stunned.
It took 63 days for Blanca Shaeffer to hear the sound of her husband's voice. When she did, Kevin sounded strangely froggy. He was speaking through a tracheotomy. The pitch was not the same. Not that it mattered to Blanca.
Every morning before physical therapy, John Yates stops to see Brian Birdwell. They did not know each other before Sept. 11. Now they are good friends, a rare pleasure that has arisen from the heartache.
Mike Kurtz holds a photo from 1970. It shows a baby-faced couple, at 19 and 18, shortly before their marriage. The young woman is Louise. The marriage is now in its 31st year.