The moment when you are 15-20 yards from an 80 ton jet coming through the building at 530 mph with 3,000 gallons of jet fuel, and you live to tell about it– not because the United States army made me the toughest guy in that building, but because the toughest man that ever walked this earth 2000 years ago and sits at the right side of the father had something else in mind.
The morning of September 11, I stepped out and went to the men’s restroom, and took care of my business. I was about 7 or 8 steps out when flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at the intersection of the fourth quarter in the E ring at about a 45-degree angle. I was thrown around, tossed around like a rag doll inside. I was set ablaze, breathing in black putrid smoke, inhaling aerosolized jet fuel, with the temperature of that air somewhere between 300-350 degrees.
You could see flesh hanging off my arms, my eyes are already beginning to swell closed, and I had no hair. The front of my shirt is still intact, my access badge and my nametag are melted, but still hanging covered in the black soot and scorched blood. My arms are skinned alive, my pants are gone, I only have my leather belt and a portion of my pants that are in the immediate area of the belt. The flames were consuming me and I expected to pass away.
It’s really the definition of terrorism because it combines two things: One, receipt of a life threatening injury, I mean, set on fire the way I was; but combined with the blackness, the darkness and inability to navigate. Just moments before I was in a hallway that I was exceedingly familiar with, I knew exactly which way I was going. Then in that next moment on the impact of the aircraft I am being set on fire, sustaining a life threatening injury with no way to escape, and no way to know which way is to safety or to danger. That darkness and that blackness is what really captures your heart in the panic. When you meet those two circumstances, those moments seem to last an eternity.
I did what we in the military are never trained to do, which is surrender. I came to that realization that I was no longer struggling to survive, but I had stepped over that line from that desire and zest for living which we were created with to that acceptance of my death and recognizing that this is how the Lord was going to call me home. I screamed out in a loud voice, “Jesus, I am coming to see you.” Yet that didn’t come, and I lay there thinking all right Lord let’s get on with this thing. But the Lord had other purposes.
I used the wall that I had been blown up against to get up; and as I was staggering down the hallway four men, Bill McKennan, Roy Wallis, John Davies and Chuck Knoblauch come out of the B ring door area and Roy can see me, he sees me coming out of the smoke and staggering in the hallway. And in their haste to pick me up, Bill, Roy, Chuck and John each grab a limb and give that exertion to get up but I didn’t come with them. It’s similar to that paraffin or hot wax you stick your hands in and after the wax cools it will just peel right off, and that’s what happened when Bill, Roy, Chuck and John each grabbed a limb and go to pick me up, they pulled chunks of flesh off of me and that’s my first insight into the pain thresholds that are ahead of me as a critical burn survivor.
I began screaming at them to leave me alone, and in my heart and mind am telling them to leave me there to die. They don’t do that. Chuck actually rolls me over onto the left hand side and essentially the four of them shake hands with each other, grasping each other’s hands and wrists with my body weight resting on their arms acting as a litter to carry me through; I am yelling at them to put me down and leave me alone. I am yelling at Bill because I recognized Bill but Bill doesn’t recognize me. I am trembling violently and uncontrollably. In all my years of triage, the process is to take care of those that are most injured first, the most critical, and Dr. Baxter treats me first, and that tells me how serious injured I am.
We get to Georgetown University Hospital. On the other side of the Potomac River across the Key Bridge – there’s a lot of intensity, a lot of voice commands, a lot of directives; clearly a lot of gravity. Normally in an emergency room situation it’s airway, breathing, circulation; once those three things have been stabilized you’re evacuated to specialized care. But more importantly, when flight 77 makes impact with the Pentagon, as the third aircraft that crashed that day, inside the White House Situation Room Vice President Cheney turns to Secretary Moneta, Secretary of Transportation, and says, “Shut down all air space in the Unites States.” that includes all medivac helicopters.
Dr. Williams will not just do his best to stabilize me, but he began the escharotomy, the incisions, and the very ghastly things that have to be done for someone who has been so seriously and critically burned. The finality and permanency of life that I thought I was facing inside the Pentagon– I am now in an emergency room realizing that whatever I do here may be my final acts.
So, I told Dr. Williams I wanted to take my wedding ring off, because normally jewelry has to be cut off the burn survivor, whether it’s a ring, bracelet or necklace if that’s the part of the body burned because as swelling of the body occurs but the jewelry doesn’t swell, it becomes a tourniquet. Judith Rogers, one of the nurses in Georgetown that had answered the “all hands on deck” call to the Emergency Room, reaches for the ring as my body is cooled like that steak you take off the grill, and as Judith takes that tug and de-gloves the flesh, there’s exposed bone after she pulls it off, there is blood streaming out of the base of my hand and only the Lord can hear me scream in my mind. I am concentrating on the dignity and the finality of the death that I know I am dying; and saying goodbye to my wife and my son, and the symbolism of that wedding ring.
Mel will eventually arrive at Georgetown. Knowing that she was there was critical to me, more than anything else she was living up to the wedding vows that she had taken 14 years earlier. I am proud of her. I asked for the hospital chaplin, Chaplin Cerillo, to say that final prayer, and it’s just a prayer that says, “Okay Lord, You are in charge here. If you guide Dr William’s hand and the team here at the Georgetown Emergency Room and I survive here, we will salute that flag and move out with that mission; but if you’ve brought me here and your decision is to bring me into eternity silently and quietly under the care and compassion of my fellow Americans, we will salute that flag too.” It was with the strength, not of a soldier, but of my faith in Christ that I could look at Dr. Williams when that prayer was over with and very laboriously tell him lets get on with it, resting in the comfort of the commander and chief of life.
General Peak very wisely asked Mel, “Has Matthew been up here to see his father?” and she said, “No, not yet.” He said, “You need to get Matthew up here because your husband is dying and your son needs to say goodbye before that happens.”
Matt would make that visit and in 20 plus years of military service, the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do was to say goodbye to my son. I remember watching Matt come in and he came into the right hand side, as I was wrapped like a mummy, with a tube in every orifice in my body. I can’t speak because of the tracheotomy and the feeding tubes and other things; but I can see him walk in and just mouth “I love you dad,” and I could sit there and mouth back to him how much I loved him; and because of that opportunity I had to say goodbye to my son, in that moment I was having my “it is finished moment”.
As hard as that was to physically and emotionally say goodbye to my son, I think about how difficult it must have been for God the Father to say goodbye to his Son for three days, his Son having known the perfection of heaven. In my death, I would be separated from my son, but joined to my heavenly father, whereas Christ’s death separated him from the perfection of heaven and the relationship he had with the Father.
Time will allow me to forgive. In fact, I can’t say that’s happened. I couldn’t look you in the eye and say, “Yeah I have forgiven and moved on,” but I can tell you that Mel and I accentuate the positive of not only having our lives to remain together and watch Matthew grow up, but also having grand kids somewhere in the future and continue to live in this great nation. We don’t think about the difficulty that five particular terrorists put us through, and concentrating on the negative of the terrorists’ actions; but we concentrate on the grace of the Lord’s actions.
You know, I got a purple heart for stepping out of a men’s restroom; and many of our men and women in uniform today earn their purple heart today by stepping out of this great nation into foreign danger zones. Christ earned his purple heart by stepping out of the perfection of heaven. And that’s exactly why the term “I am Second and He is first” is so appropriate.
My name is Brian Birdwell and I am Second.
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