By Mariel Williams Pflugerville Pflag
September 11 survivor Sen. Brian Birdwell was the featured speaker at the Texas National Day of Prayer kickoff Sunday, hosted by First Baptist Church in Pflugerville.
A Granbury resident now serving in the Texas State Senate, Birdwell was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel working at the Pentagon in 2001. On September 11 of that year, he stepped out of his office briefly just before American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it, killing two of his coworkers and nearly 200 others.
Birdwell spoke about his experiences escaping the burning Pentagon with severe injuries, emphasizing his belief that God saved him from death and allowed him to recover and be reunited with his family.
Birdwell said he heard about the earlier terrorist attacks in New York and turned on the television to watch coverage with two coworkers, Sandi Taylor and Cheryl Sincock. The three knelt to pray together for the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, as well as the firefighters and other first responders working to get people out of the burning buildings.
“At about 9:35, I stepped out, told Sandi and Cheryl that I would be back momentarily,” Birdwell said. “Those would be the last words I spoke to my coworkers.”
Birdwell was walking down a corridor when the plane crashed through the space between him and his office. He was approximately 20 yards away from the point of impact.
“You do not survive being that close to an 80-ton jet, carrying 50,000 gallons of fuel, impacting a building by being the toughest man in the Army,” Birdwell said. “You survive because the toughest man that ever lived is still on the throne.”
The National Day of Prayer event also featured a performance by local singing group Aire to the Throne and prayers for political leaders, the military and others.
“[National Day of Prayer] is a worldwide event,” said coordinator Evelyn Davison. “We have 60 nations that are lined up to pray for the soul of America.”
In his remarks, Birdwell emphasized the intense pain he felt in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
“This is not an action-adventure movie,” he said. “I was burned on 60 percent of my body.”
Birdwell required 39 operations to fully recover from his wounds.
“My arms are completely [skin] grafted, from finger to shoulder,” he said. “My eye sockets have been reconstructed, [and] my ears.…I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of surgeon’s offices.”
Birdwell spent most of that day convinced he was going to die. He walked blindly through a corridor filled with black smoke toward the inner rings of the Pentagon until he was found by some colleagues who worked further away from the impact point.
“Those seconds and minutes lasted an eternity,” he said. “I surrendered; I quit; I gave up. … I screamed in a very loud voice, ‘Jesus, I’m coming to see you.’”
When other Pentagon employees found Birdwell, they found themselves making his injuries worse as they carried him to safety.
“Each one grabs an arm, pulls, but I don’t come with it,” he said. “They pull chunks of charred flesh away.”
Before going into his first surgery, Birdwell was able to say goodbye to his wife and 12-year-old son, still convinced that he was about to die. But instead, he found himself beginning a slow recovery that would eventually lead to a career in politics, founding a nonprofit that supports critical burn survivors, and writing “Refined by Fire: A Family’s Triumph of Love” with his wife, Mel Birdwell.
“One of the harder days in the hospital was the day that I got out of the ICU … because the question of life and death had been answered,” he said after the service. “Not knowing what the new normal was going to be, … [asking] ‘Am I now a prisoner of my body, a prisoner of the hospital?’ That was a hard, hard day.”
At one point, Birdwell faced the possibility of losing both his arms to infection. His doctors used maggots to chew off the infected tissue.
“Had the maggots failed to get the infection cleaned up, the next step was for the doctors to amputate both arms at the shoulders,” he said.
“Two of the best doctors in the burn arena were not able to do for me what some of God’s nastiest creatures could do.”
Although his injuries will continue to affect the rest of his life, Birdwell is thankful to still have his limbs and his faculties.
“I’m doing good, and I don’t look too bad for a guy who was run over by a 747,” he said.
National Day of Prayer is Thursday, May 1. The Capitol Texas Task Force National Day of Prayer organization will follow up the First Baptist Church kickoff event and a prayer breakfast Monday with a May 1 event at 11:45 a.m. at the state Capitol.