DALLAS — State Sen. Brian Birdwell spoke at UT Southwestern Medical Center on Sept. 9 about his experiences as a survivor of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and his recovery as a burn victim.
“Every year, we donate $5,000-$10,000 to a burn center or burn-related charitable organization,” Birdwell said. “The donation this year (to UTSWMC) just happened to coincide with the burn center conference.”
Birdwell was in the Pentagon, 15-20 yards away from the section of E-ring that was hit by American Airlines Flight 77.
“The Boeing 757 was traveling at 538 mph with over 3,000 gallons of jet fuel and I was standing 15-20 yards away,” Birdwell said. “It’s only by the grace of the Lord that I am alive today.”
One of Birdwell’s coworkers received a phone call from her daughter saying New York City had been attacked.
“We had no idea that we would be next,” Birdwell said. “We didn’t know the magnitude of that day.”
Birdwell then stepped out of his office to go to the restroom. His office window was four to the left of the section that was hit. He was about to turn down the hall to cross the section when the plane hit.
“I didn’t hear it coming, but I heard the impact,” Birdwell said. “Out at Ridgemar Mall, B-52s used to fly over it. If you were out in the parking lot when one of those flew over with all eight engines at full blast, the volume of the sound was physically painful. That’s what it sounded like.”
Birdwell suffered burns over 60 percent of his body with 40 percent of those burns being third degree. He staggered through the wreckage to reach the other side, where coworkers he knew picked him up and carried him to receive medical attention.
“They reached down to pick me up and when they pulled, I didn’t come with them – they just pulled off flesh,” Birdwell said. “The four of them then locked arms underneath me in a kind of handshake with each other and carried me.”
Birdwell was taken to Georgetown University Hospital where Dr. Michael Williams happened to be training the hospital’s staff.
“I was the only casualty there from the Pentagon,” Birdwell said. “I had the hospital’s full undivided attention.”
Birdwell could not be flown to a special burn center hospital, because all air-space traffic was shut down by that time. It was by God’s grace the physicians attending to him had decades of experience and expertise to treat him until UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas could send up allograft (the skin graft to cover his burns), Birdwell said, noting the allograft had to be driven cross-country and explaining why UTSWMC is special to him.
One of nine burn victims from the Pentagon, Birdwell underwent more than 30 operations.
“After three or four days, there were only nine of us left,” Birdwell said. “I spent months living out of a suitcase in the burn center. It wasn’t until December that I found out the two towers had fallen and knew the whole plot of the attacks on Sept. 11.”
Birdwell began a ministry called Face The Fire in 2003 that has sense provided $200,000 in assistance to families in need. According to the ministry’s website, its goals are “to glorify the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in all of our endeavors, provide financial assistance to the families of burn victims, financially and otherwise, assist medical facilities specializing in the research, treatment and care of burn survivors and help burn survivors and their families understand the rehabilitation process and enable them to live a full, meaningful and productive life after enduring such a tragedy.”
Birdwell donated $10,000 to UT Southwestern Medical Center at the conference and presented the facility with challenge coins, which were Pentagon-shaped and featured the U.S. flag and the Purple Heart on the back.
Birdwell received the Purple Heart for the wounds he suffered at the Pentagon and, after he retired, was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Birdwell said he will remember the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by attending and speaking at a number of events and memorials through Sept. 14 to honor the many people who lost their lives that day or in the following days of the attacks.
Contact Aaron at 469-517-1456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.