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A Pentagon survivor's story

Knocked to the floor, then 'I'm on fire'

Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell
Almost half of Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell's body was burned when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.  

From Jonathan Aiken
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Forty yards was all that separated Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell from American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon on September 11.

The Army officer was just leaving the restroom the plane hit, the impact severe enough to knock him down and create a huge fireball that enveloped him.

"You heard the sound, then the concussion knocks me down and that's when the fireball comes through," he said. "I do not recall seeing fire coming at me -- whether I was laying on my back or otherwise. I remember trying to get to my feet and I'm on fire."

Unlike many of his colleagues, Birdwell survived the explosion, fire and partial collapse of the Pentagon. Three months later, he's out of the hospital and on the road to recovery.

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The compression gloves Birdwell now wears -- they are designed to reduce scarring and protect his hands -- are a tangible reminder of that late-summer day.

Now, Birdwell says he's just thankful to be home for the holidays where he hopes to regain some normalcy in his life, "just spending the day together" with his family.

'No way they could've survived'

When a friend told Mel Birdwell a plane had hit the Pentagon, she was convinced that her husband had been killed.

"I knew if he were in his office, that he was standing at the throne of God, because there was no way they could have survived it," Mel Birdwell said. "Because where the plane hit was three windows from his window, where his desk was."

Plumes of smoke rose from the building and Brian Birdwell collapsed under a corridor sprinkler, which doused the flames that had burned almost half his body.

He wound up at Washington Hospital's burn unit, where he was tended to by his wife and Dr. James Jeng, a burn specialist and Navy reservist who would be on call for military duty by the end of the day.

Two days later, Birdwell got a visit from his boss -- President Bush, commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

"The president comes in and he says, 'Col. Birdwell,' and he salutes," Mel Birdwell recalled. "And Brian attempts to return the salute, and the president sees that he's returning the salute and he stands there and holds his salute with tears in his eyes."

Strengthened by faith

Birdwell was just forty yards from the point where the plane hit the Pentagon.  

After months of therapy, Birdwell is finally able to go home, go to church and do many other things that he never would have imagined when the hijacked airliner hit on September 11.

When he was lying on his back that morning, he recalled calling "out to my lord and savior, because I knew I was in bad shape and without God's help I wasn't going to get out of here."

Brian Birdwell hasn't lost his sense of humor, even though his cumbersome gloves may have hindered his manners.

"My mom used to teach me how you hold your fork between your middle and forefinger to eat properly, now I have to stab at it, you know, like some untrained, ill-mannered person," he said.

He also hasn't lost his faith. Birdwell attended church on Thanksgiving, where the congregation at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Virginia, gave him thanks.

"These are the finest people I've ever known in my life, men and women who serve our country and love Christ," the church's senior pastor, Rev. Michael Easley, said of the Birdwells. "They're a unique combination."


• U.S. Department of Defense
• Immanuel Bible Church

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