Many stories of courage came out of the 9/11 attacks, and the experience of Lt. Col Brian Birdwell and his wife, Mel, is one of the most dramatic and inspiring. Devout followers of Jesus Christ, the Birdwells recall his sustaining grace on that day and those that followed.
BH: Colonel, I know you’ve told this story many times, but take us through what you recall about the attack on the Pentagon.
Lt. Col. Birdwell: The day had started off as any other, up until about 9 a.m. That’s when one of the ladies in the office got a phone call from her daughter up in New York saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When she got off the phone, it was like, “Huh?” so we turned on the television in my boss’ office – both my immediate boss and my big boss were out of the office that day. You could see this huge, huge hole in the World Trade Center. So it was Cheryl, Sandy and myself, but as we were watching what was going on, it just didn’t smell right: that large of a plane, weather that clear … and as we were watching what was going on in New York, the second plane hit the second tower. Of course, that confirmed for us that the first one was certainly no accident. And you already knew that whoever was on those planes had already met with a horrible death.
At about 9:30 or so, I stepped out of the office to use the men’s restroom, telling Cheryl and Sandy that I’d be back in a moment. And those would be the last words I’d say to them.
In going to the restroom, if you recall the visual picture of the part of the Pentagon that collapsed, I had actually walked through that portion. My office window was just to the left of where the collapse occurred. Where I was located at the time the plane crashed into the building was just to the right of where the collapse occurred. Another 20 or 30 seconds, and I actually would have been in the path of the plane. So I had taken maybe six or seven steps out of the men’s restroom doorway when I heard something quite loud. I just had a nanosecond to think, “Bomb!” It was just instantaneous. One second, everything is normal. Then, a second later, everything is just black. Instantaneous. Then I’m burning, the building around me is burning. It’s pitch black other than the ambient glow of all the fire. It was just a pretty ghastly experience to go through.
In those moments that I was struggling to survive, it became readily apparent that, even if I had stopped, dropped and rolled, it wouldn’t have served a purpose. Imagine not only being on fire, but even if I could put the fire out around me, I’d have been unable to navigate through all that black smoke. I had no sense of bearing. I’d walked those corridors hundreds of times. But one minute I was totally oriented to where I was going, and then the next second I had no idea where I was in the building. At that point, I transitioned into accepting my death. I realized that I’m no longer struggling to live; it’s just a matter now of when I will die.
In that moment, I cried out in a very loud voice, “Jesus, I’m coming to see you!” It was not a meek voice, it was very much a loud, unashamed voice. But it wasn’t a cry for mercy, in the sense of, “Lord, save me from this.” It was more, “OK, I got it. I’m dying. I’m soon to be at the throne of my Creator.” So, after having said what I thought were my last words on Earth, I thought about Mel and our son Matt, how I’d said goodbye to them that morning. Then I just began waiting for whatever that feeling is of the soul departing the body, of the transition from earthly life to eternal life.
It was just peaceful. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe that kind of peace. It was just silent, though I know there wasn’t silence really, but everything around me, it just wasn’t there. I was concentrating on waiting for death to arrive, and it never did. The Lord had a different purpose for me that day.
BH: Mel, what was happening with you and your son during this time?
Mrs. Birdwell: We were homeschooling at the time, and Matt and I were doing history, and a friend called and asked if we’d seen what had happened to the World Trade Center. We didn’t have the TV on, so we turned it on and watched it for a few minutes, then turned it off, which is very strange for us. I know it was just the Holy Spirit guiding us, because living in D.C. you pretty much become a news junkie; you get sucked into the politics of it all. We very strangely just turned it off. And normally, I would have called Brian and talked to him about it, but I really just felt, “No, leave him alone.” That was very strange, and I know it was the Holy Spirit again, because had I called I could have delayed his trip to the restroom, and he could have been in his office on the phone with me when the plane hit.
So we turned off the TV and went back to doing school when one of my neighbors called, and asked, “Are you OK?” I told her we were fine, and she said, “The Pentagon has been hit!” We raced to the TV and turned it on, and the first thing we see is the air traffic control tower and the helipad. I knew that was right outside Brian’s window because I had helped him unpack boxes in his office a few weeks before that, and I’d sat at his desk and watched it rain on that very helipad. As soon as I saw the flames coming out of the office window behind the helipad, I knew we were in trouble.
Matt tried to reassure me, saying, “That’s not Dad’s office. His office is on the other side of the building.” And I said, “Honey, I hope you’re right, but let’s just pray about it anyway.” We sat down and prayed for Brian and for the rescuers, praying that they’d be safe. Then I called a friend of mine to ask her to come and be with me and to call the pastors at our church to let them know that that was the side of the building that Brian was on and he was likely affected by this. And we just sat and watched TV and prayed and tried to call family to let them know that we didn’t know anything, but that we were pretty sure that it was Brian’s side of the building.
Then I remember watching the building collapse and just crying out, “God, no!” I knew he could still very well be in there.
About two hours after the attack, I got a call from the husband of a lady who, in the process of evacuating the Pentagon, had grabbed her Bible on the way out. As she was on her way out of the building, a way she had never been before, she saw Brian on the floor being triaged. She had told her husband that she just felt led to go and pray with him. So she knelt down next to him and they said the Lord’s Prayer together and they said the 23rd Psalm together, and she read him the 91st Psalm. The entire time, Brian is telling everyone, “Call my wife!” She wrote our phone number down in her Bible, and she was eventually able to reach her husband, and he called me to tell me that Brian was alive and would be at Georgetown University Hospital.
BH: Colonel, how much of what happened after the explosion can you remember? Were you in a medicated haze through most of this?
Lt. Col. Birdwell: One of the miracles that morning was that throughout this process – up until I got to Dr. Williams at Georgetown where I was finally sedated – up until that moment, I was conscious through this whole process. I remember everything from when I was carried out of Corridor Four in the Pentagon to the triage center outside, where the woman Mel mentioned, Natalie, was praying with me. I remember being taken out in a little golf cart – we have little golf cart ambulances in the Pentagon because the building is so large and you’ve got all those floors – and there was not a prolonged wait for medical care. After a gentleman carried me to the triage site, I was very blessed in that a great Air Force doctor, Dr. Baxter, had come downstairs to evacuate the building carrying his medical “go bag,” I guess you could call it. He gave me my first pain medication, cut what was left of my clothes off of me and took my shoes off. My feet were where he applied the medical treatments to me because they were the only spot on me that he could tell wasn’t damaged by burns. So he gave me a morphine injection in my right foot and an I.V. in my left foot.
I knew I was still very badly hurt, and even though I knew that the Lord had already carried me through the traumatic events of the explosion, the fire and all that stuff, I realized that I could still very much be at death’s door, that He could call me home at any moment. I was really concentrating more on Natalie and the prayers that we were saying together, but I knew I was in very bad shape because I was the first to be evacuated. There were five or six other people around me, and when I was the first one taken, I was like, “OK, I know what that means.”
I got out of the building on the little golf-cart ambulance and was taken to the north parking area. I’m not sure how long I was there until I was eventually loaded up in a privately owned vehicle, but I remember there were sirens, there were people yelling. Flight 93, the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was still in the air at the time and was on a flight path toward D.C. The building was being evacuated. I could hear policemen yelling, “Fourth plane’s coming, get away from the building!” Eventually, a medical technician, Shirley Baldwin, commandeered a young Army captain’s Ford Expedition. This captain off-loaded all his bags, golf clubs and stuff out of the back, and I was on a body board, and they loaded me up into the Ford. One of the Air Force medics, Jill Heissen, got in the vehicle with me, holding my I.V. bag. One of my work buddies, Maj. John Collison, did not recognize me. I mean, that’s how badly burned I was. He only figured out who I was when he read the tag Dr. Baxter had attached to my toe, listing my name and the medications I’d been given. He was stunned.
John hopped into the Expedition with me and that’s – I wouldn’t want to compare what was happening to Christ’s crucifixion, but in many ways, the same way that John was with Christ at the crucifixion, that is what John Collison was doing for me. I had someone there that I knew personally, a great officer, and in the back of my mind, I knew that whatever we do and whatever I tell John is going to get back to Mel. He allowed me the comfort of knowing I could indirectly communicate with her should I not survive this.
The medic, Jill, made the decision that we were going to Georgetown. And we had a very harrowing drive, and not just because of the traffic. I mean, we were going over curbs. … I’m sure there were tire tracks left in some senator’s yard in Georgetown somewhere. Breathing was difficult. Talking was difficult. It seemed like we got there pretty quickly. I’m confident that the Lord put Jill there for a very specific purpose; her decision to take me to Georgetown was a miracle in itself. Here’s why: When I got to Georgetown, Dr. Williams was the attending physician in the emergency room. We found out later that Dr. Williams had spent two years over at the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit. So from the perspective of emergency room treatment, I had the best doctor with the best training at the right hospital at the right time.
Mrs. Birdwell: It’s amazing to know that outside of going to the Washington Hospital Center’s burn unit immediately, he was in incredible hands at Georgetown. Not only did Dr. Williams have specialized training, but one of the nurses who was in the critical I.C.U. in Georgetown previously had worked in the burn center at Washington Hospital. Miraculously, another nurse who was at that time still on staff at the burn center just happened to be visiting her sister at Georgetown, and she helped get everything set up for Brian. It was just phenomenal, the people that the Lord put exactly where they needed to be to make sure that Brian was alive.
BH: And while your husband was on his harrowing drive, you were on one of your own, weren’t you?
Mrs. Birdwell: After the call from Natalie’s husband, I had a neighbor drive me to Georgetown, and what normally is a half-hour trip took two hours because the traffic was so bad. And when we got to the bridge that connects Virginia and D.C., it was closed to traffic. So I just decided to get out and run the rest of the way. Eventually I was able to flag down a D.C. police officer who drove me to the hospital and the doctor met me at the door to prepare me for what I was going to see. Then we went up and saw Brian, and it was horrendous. He was horribly, horribly burned. His face was just the whitest white I could possibly imagine, because they had already taken off much of the dead, burned skin. And he had a tube down his throat and he was sedated, so he didn’t know I was there. He was just tremendously swollen. It was incredibly difficult to go in and see him that way. But he was alive, and I was very thankful for that.
BH: And eventually, you both received a visit that has since become one of the most moving stories to come out of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mrs. Birdwell: We received a call from the Secret Service asking if the president could come and visit Brian, and we said definitely he could. This was the first clue as to what an absolutely godly man we were dealing with, because I had the option of saying no. And there were families that did say no. But Mrs. Bush came in first and visited, and Brian was still intubated, so I had to read his lips for her.
She said, “Well, Col. Birdwell, you’re a hero and a great American and we’re very proud of you.” She asked where he was from, and he said, “Ft. Worth, Texas,” and she said, “Well, I’m from Midland, Texas.” And they did this little “Texas happy dance” that Texans do when they meet one another. After asking about our family, she said, “Well, colonel, I brought someone to see you.”
The president comes into Brian’s room, and he walks to the foot of Brian’s bed, and simply says, “Col. Birdwell.” And Brian’s eyes are huge; it’s like he’s not even blinking as he’s taking all this in. Then he salutes Brian! Brian’s arms are wrapped in sterile towels at this point, because he’s about to go into surgery. But the president sees that Brian is actually trying to return his salute! So Brian is lifting his arm – and it’s kind of like he’s in slow motion at this point because bending his arm is just hideously painful – and all the president can see is just muscles. All the flesh is gone. Brian gets his arm about three-quarters of the way up, and the president just stands there holding his salute the entire time, with tears in his eyes, while Brian finishes his own salute. The president honored Brian, because it’s the junior guy who salutes first and holds it, not the senior guy.
Then he said, “Col. Birdwell, you are a hero, and we are going to get the guys who did this. This is not going to go unanswered.” And he’s been very true to his word in that. He’s a godly man, and I think our country is incredibly blessed to have him as our president.
BH: Colonel, 60 percent of your body was consumed by burns, with almost half of them being third degree. You have endured more than 30 operations since then. Looking back now that some time has passed, what are your thoughts as the anniversary date is upon us?
Lt. Col. Birdwell: I guess a good summation would be that we are very blessed to be alive together. The things you take for granted, whether it’s just simply life, or physical abilities … We are very blessed to have the rest of our lives together… The Lord has been very gracious.
But another thing that I would add is the fact that September 11th really wasn’t about buildings, it was about people. A day doesn’t go by without, in some way, me thinking about Sandy and Cheryl. And I know that the same goes for everyone who lost someone in the World Trade Center, Flight 93 or the Pentagon. Mel is blessed in that every morning she wakes up and I’m beside her. But there are families out there – one of which we know pretty well, for example, with two young boys. And those boys are going to grow up without their father.
Mrs. Birdwell: Second Corinthians talks about the God of all comfort and that we should comfort one another. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do through the ministry we started called “Face The Fire.” We want to help other burn survivors and their families understand that the road that lies ahead of them is neither pretty nor easy, but we need to strive to help one another along. That’s really what it’s all about – just loving one another, the way Christ commanded us to do.
Lt. Col. Birdwell: Pastor Elwood, one of our pastors, once said to me, “Brian, God doesn’t waste our pain.” And what we’ve been through is a great family story, a great soldier’s story, but most importantly, it’s a great faith story. And that’s why we share it.