Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell (Ret.) and his wife Mel returned recently to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., to thank the hospital staff who initially administered medical care to Brian after his receiving burns on more than 60 percent of his body. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Birdwell was standing about 20 yards away from the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed through the outer wall of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. "What I will remember vividly for the rest of my life is the smell of jet fuel embedded into him and his clothes," said Dr. Michael Williams. Dr. Williams, who treated Birdwell after his arrival at the hospital, was the director of trauma and critical care at Georgetown University Hospital in Northwest at the time of the terrorist attacks.
"The Lord puts us in the right place at the right time ... so we could stand here and say thank you today," expressed Lt. Col. (Ret.) Birdwell to Dr. Williams. The Birdwells presented the hospital with a quilt made by Mrs. Birdwell and commemorative coins that the couple had specially designed and minted to represent their extreme gratitude. While in Washington, Brian and Mel appeared on the Fox News Channel and interviewed with the Washington Times, who reported on the moving presentation to the nurses and doctors at the hospital. Following the ceremony, the Birdwells visited the Pentagon Library, where they donated a signed copy of their book, Refined by Fire. “This is the first-ever event like this for us,” stated LaDonna Kirkland, librarian. Brian jokingly remarked, “This is my first official day of retirement and look – here I am, back at the Pentagon!” At both the hospital and the Pentagon, the Birdwells received overwhelming receptions, with heart-warming well wishes and tearful reunions that allowed closure for some who had assisted Brian on that fateful day but did not know of his survival. Over the 4th of July weekend, Brian and Mel were also warmly received at a VA hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had the opportunity of throwing out the first pitch of a game for the Albuquerque Isotopes baseball team. In a true story that is unbelievably horrifying in its scope of human suffering, yet hauntingly encouraging and ultimately triumphant in its outcome, Refined by Fire (Tyndale House Publishers, July 4, 2004) is the unforgettable account of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian Birdwell and his wife Mel. In stories no one has ever told, Refined by Fire is filled with page after page of gripping behind-the-scenes heroics and heart-wrenching personal observations by both Brian and Mel Birdwell as they recount the events on and after that horrible September day. Together, the couple has also founded Face the Fire, an organization whose purpose is to help burn victims, their families and the medical facilities that specialize in their care. For more information, visit www.FacetheFire.org.
George W. Bush saluted an Army officer who had been badly injured during the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon
"As you may know, the President and Mrs. Bush visited the Washington Burn Center on Friday 14 September. Among those they visited was LTC Brian Birdwell, who was badly burned in the Pentagon attack. Mrs. Bush went into Brian's room, spoke to him for about a minute, all the time as if they had been long acquaintances. She then turned to Brian's wife Mel, who at this time had been at the hospital for probably 2 1/2 days, and apparently, according to Mel herself, was dirty, grimy and had blood on her shirt.
Mrs. Bush hugged Mel for what Mel said seemed like an eternity, just as if Mel were one of her closest family members.
Mrs. Bush then told Brian and Mel that there was "someone" there to see him.
The President then walked in, stood by Brian's bedside, asked Brian how he was doing, told him that he was very proud of them both and that they were his heroes.
The President then saluted Brian. Now, at this point in time, Brian is bandaged up pretty well. His hands are burned very badly as well as the back of him from the head down. His movements were very restricted.
Upon seeing the President saluting him, Brian began to slowly return the salute, taking, from the accounts so far, about 15-20 seconds to get his hand up to his head.
During all of this, 15-20 seconds, President Bush never moved, never dropped his salute. The President dropped his salute only when Brian was finished with his, and then gave Mel a huge hug for what also probably seemed like an eternity.
Pray for our leadership. Thank God for what we are, have, and will be.
As a note to those of you who might not be familiar with military protocol, the subordinate normally initiates a salute and will hold it until the superior officer returns the salute.
In the above incident, President Bush acted in the role of the subordinate to show his respect and high regard for the injured man.
...Birdwell's older brother, Wade, also confirmed the story via e-mail:
"I cannot tell you how grateful and truly proud I am that when Brian started to return that salute, despite his wounds, the president held his salute firmly and thereby permitted my brother the honor of demonstrating his and the true character of so very many others of our fighting men and women. Indeed, you should know that it was this very character that likely saved Brian's life in the first place. As Brian crawled through the fire, certain brave men and women pulled him from the carnage, carried him out to the parking lot, then into the adjoining street."
These are just a few little stories, but I think they tell you a lot about the man.....
Article republished courtesy of Shipmate, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine
Navy Command Center survivor's story
September 11th Reflections: My Ring Story
By Lieutenant Kevin Shaeffer ’94, U.S. Navy (Retired)
September 11, 2001—A beautiful morning to be sure. At least that’s how it started out. It was close to 6:30 a.m. and I was riding in to the Pentagon from my home in Fredericksburg, VA. I recall my mind wandering back and forth from the work I had for the day and a family fishing trip that was planned later in the month. I missed my wife, also an active duty Navy lieutenant (Class of ’95), who was out of town on business.
I had been working on the CNO’s staff for almost exactly 13 months, busy with the rigors of being a very junior action officer in a branch with responsibilities concerning naval strategy and concepts. Others have in the past joked about how working in the Pentagon could nearly be considered hazardous duty, with all of the service infighting, tactful press leaks, and biting memoranda. I would soon learn just how hazardous such duty could really be.
As I swiped my identification badge through the security lock door to the brand-new Navy Command Center, I was motivated to tackle the challenges of the day. It was just minutes after 7 a.m. About one month earlier my branch had moved from our old space into the newly renovated "wedge." The space still smelled fresh and new, and though cubicles dominated throughout, they were modern and clean and stocked with the latest computer equipment. It was an interesting time to be working in the Pentagon. The administration and services were in the final phases of the Quadrennial Defense Review and my shop was busy supporting that effort while also being at the cusp of crafting a new Naval strategy to help guide our service in the 21st century. After a quick change into my khakis I set about reviewing my email inbox and digesting my daily dose of the "Early Bird" (a compilation of relevant news articles). In the four-man cubicle with me, conducting their similar morning routines, were my officemates and friends—Lieutenant Commander Dave Williams, and Commanders Bill Donovan ’86 and Pat Dunn ’85. After our morning meeting with our branch head, Captain Bob Dolan ’81, we returned to our desks to get started on the taskings for the day. The time was just past 8:30 a.m.
Our office situation was a unique one in that we shared working space within the Command Center. The Command Center was manned 24 hours a day by officers and petty officers whose responsibilities included keeping up with actions of U.S. naval units deployed around the world as well as monitoring the worldwide news broadcasts for events of interest. Because of our working relationship, we were constantly kept abreast of current events as they occurred. At approximately 8:55 a.m., the entire Command Center instantly became acutely aware with the horrors unfolding in New York City at the World Trade Center towers. As the televised news stations switched to close aerial coverage of the burning North Tower, the images of raging fire and thick black smoke cascading up into a blue sky held the attention of every individual in the bustling Command Center. At 9:03 a.m., a tense, audible gasp erupted throughout the space. The horrific situation had gotten worse—as the second airliner slammed into the South Tower with an explicitly violent crash.
Standing next to my officemates, Commanders Donovan and Williams, I voiced what was evident to all of us, "There’s no way that is an accident! We’re witnessing a terrorist attack on our own soil." We instantly checked to see what time it was, and wondered aloud just how many people were in those airliners and at work in those towers. In stunned silence, we continued to watch the events on several large-screen displays located in the "watch team" section of the larger Command Center space. As the minutes passed, most of us returned to our desks, some in silence, some engaging in quiet discussions trying to make sense out of the moment, others intent on calling loved-ones. I specifically recall standing beside my desk, peering over the cubicle dividers and watching the burning towers on television. Commanders Donovan, Dunn, and Williams were seated at their desks—just a few feet away. Never did any of us consider our location at risk.
In a flash, at exactly 9:43 a.m., the entire Command Center exploded in a gigantic orange fireball and I felt myself being slammed to the deck by a massive and thunderous shock wave. It felt to me as if the blast started with the outer wall facing my backside, blowing me forward toward Commander Dunn’s desk. I never lost consciousness, and though the entire space was pitch black, I immediately sensed that I was on fire.
While still lying on the ground I ran my fingers through my hair and over my face to extinguish the flames. Simultaneously, I tried to roll my body in order to put out the flames I felt burning on my back and arms. As I stood to get my wits about me, I could just barely make out through thick, acrid smoke, the carnage of what had been, just moments before, a space full of my shipmates. "A coordinated attack!" I thought. I stood for a moment in a frozen shock. My mind raced. It must have been a bomb planted by one of the many construction workers or technical contractors who still mingled about, placing the final touches on the new wedge. I called out for help, but to no avail. I could sense the flames and that the space was quickly filling up with smoke. It burned my mouth and throat and I struggled to breathe. My mind raced to my wife, Blanca, the love we shared, and I was sickened at the thought of never seeing her again. "I’m alive!" I thought, and yelled out to myself, "Keep moving, Kevin! Keep moving!" I had to find a way to escape. The security lock door—would it have failed open or locked shut? I quickly decided it probably failed locked and began crawling and climbing towards the back of the space. I couldn’t see much through the darkness and smoke, but I could tell that the ceiling had collapsed into the space and that everything around me was blown to bits. It felt as if I was crawling over rubble several feet high. Soon I came upon frayed electrical cables dangling from the caved in ceiling, in front of broken water pipes and gushing water. "Great, I thought, I’m now going to be electrocuted." I managed my way just under and around the cables and found myself in what appeared to be another space, unfamiliar to me, adjacent to the Command Center. As I crawled, I could see glimpses of daylight streaming through the smoke. I felt my adrenaline kick in and I rapidly crawled over about a dozen desks, stood, and walked through what was obviously a freshly blown-out hole in the brick wall adjacent to A and E Drive, between the third and fourth Pentagon rings. Without looking too closely I knew my hands and arms were in very bad shape. I remember calling out for help and seeing several people running frantically up and down A and E Drive.
The next memory I have is seeing Sergeant First Class Steve Workman, adorned in a white t-shirt and Army slacks, answering my screams for help. "I’m alive," I yelled out to him. He was able to make contact with another man in an electric maintenance cart. Together, they placed me on the aft deck of the cart and the three of us raced off in search of medical help. After a fruitless stop at the DiLorenzo Army Medical Clinic located within the Pentagon, SGT Workman placed me on a medical gurney and we exited the building via the North exit. My constant pleas for medical help were answered when Sergeant Workman commandeered what was very likely the first ambulance to arrive at the Pentagon. One look at me was all the ambulance crew needed and we all, including Sergeant Workman, were off racing towards Walter Reed Army Hospital. It was the wildest ride of my life and felt as if we made half of the trip to the hospital "off-road," darting around congested traffic, occasionally "brushing up against" cars in our path. We finally reached the hospital emergency station and as I was wheeled into the building a team of what seemed like over 20 medical personnel descended upon me, each working on separate tasks in an effort to save my life.
As I lay on the gurney, I thought I heard one of the nurses assess my condition as "50% burns, 50/50 chance!" Time seemed to freeze and I grabbed that nurse, pulled her close and told her "No! I’m alive! I’m going to live!" I next realized that several nurses were, with little success, attempting to remove the wedding band I wore on my left hand and my 1994 Naval Academy Class Ring I wore on my right hand. The skin on both of my hands was severely burned and hanging from my fingers. They called out for the ring-cutter. "Stop! Stop!" I cried, giving pause to the group of frantic personnel around me. With the focus of all of my will and strength I managed to pry each ring off my fingers and handed them safely to a nearby nurse. "Okay, I thought, now you may proceed with saving my life." It was my last conscious memory of September 11, 2001. To this day, my wife wears my wedding band next to hers and my Class Ring on a chain around her neck. I anxiously await the day when my hands have healed enough to allow my rings to return to their proper place upon my fingers.