Incredible survival story teaches lessons

Nov 3, 2014

By Chip Hutcheson
Publisher | The Times Leader, Princeton, KY

SAN ANTONIO—Whenever Karen and I attend a newspaper convention, we return with ideas and motivation to improve our newspaper.

That’s the case following last month’s National Newspaper Association annual convention in San Antonio—but it’s not the No. 1 impact from that meeting. Far from it.

The keynote speaker at the convention actually said very little about newspapers, but he made one of the most compelling speeches I’ve ever heard. And I think when you read just a portion of his story you will agree. I think you will agree with his statement that “it’s a great story of the Lord’s grace in our lives,” and is evidence that “He’s still on the throne and still in charge of our lives.”

Lt. Col. (Ret) Brian Birdwell, now a Texas state senator, was working inside the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He and a co-worker knelt and prayed as they saw reports of two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York, never thinking that an attack on the Pentagon would be next.

Later, he left his office to go to the restroom, leaving two co-workers in his office. That’s when American Airlines Flight 77, traveling at 530 mph, crashed into the second floor area where his office was located. The two co-workers died instantly, but Birdwell was yards away from the impact site and survived, although he was critically wounded and severely burned.

The burns covered 60 percent of his body, and half of them were third degree in severity. He looked down and saw his flesh hanging off his body. He was in agonizing pain.

The injuries were internal as well. The temperature of what he was breathing in, coupled with inhaling jet fuel, caused serious damage to his lungs. “I was burning outside, but very slowly drowning inside,” he said. “There’s a real sense of panic when you realize the intensity of your injuries and you cannot escape the source. No words explain the gravity of the fear and panic. But the Lord gives us a zest for life, and as I struggled to live, I got to all fours. But because of damage to my inner ear, my sense of balance was destroyed. Minutes seemed to last an eternity.”

He said he was at the point where he realized the severity of his situation and was ready to die.

“I surrendered—I said ‘Jesus I’m coming to see you.’ I accepted that reality, collapsed and wanted to die. I realized the finality of death. As I lay there, I thought the next time I would see my wife and son would be in eternity with the Lord.” He said there was a “sense of quiet and peace knowing where I’d spend eternity, and I knew God was waiting and I would hear ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”

But then began a number of miracles. He said there were numerous instances of “the Lord putting the right people in the right place at the right time—it shows you how much in charge the Lord really is.”

In the distance, he could see a reflection of the tile floor, and he used the wall to get up and began to stagger away from the impact point. Then four men, looking to assist any of the 125 people in that section of the building, spotted him.

As they attempted to move him, chunks of his arms and legs pulled off in their hands. “I told them to leave me there to die, just touching me was agonizing.”

But one of the men rolled him over and the four linked arms and rested his body on their arms, even though that process found him screaming out in pain.

They got him away from that area and to a doctor—he was one of five or six victims at the time. “The doctor came to me first; my experience told me that said I was the worst. I was trembling violently, a woman was saying the 23rd Psalm and 91st Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. They gave me morphine in my left foot and an IV in the other.”

He was taken to Georgetown University Hospital, the only victim taken there. The nurse who accompanied him was a reservist who was spending just two weeks at the Pentagon, and the only hospital she knew how to get to was Georgetown. But at that hospital, the attending physician had just spent two years working in a trauma center. “The doctor told me they would do the best they possibly could. I knew what that meant. Whether I would live or die was still unanswered.”

He asked that his wedding ring be removed. He knew his body would start to swell and he didn’t want it cut off. “I didn’t want it to be destroyed. I told the nurse to take my ring and give it to my wife and tell her that I love her.”

He said the hospital chaplain led a quick prayer. “I knew who was really in charge because I had given my heart and life at age 10 to Jesus Christ.

“It was with strength—not of a soldier, but of knowing the commander-in-chief of my eternity, that I could say let’s get on with it.”

Over the next four years, he had 39 surgeries to rebuild and reconstruct his body.

The months that followed were extremely painful. “A burn survivor knows the intensity of pain—what can be done to survive is worse than what happened to you.” He recalled the daily treatments in a large tank “when only the Lord could hear me scream.”

Three months later, on Dec. 12, 2001, it was early in the morning hours when a three-star general, James B. Peake, came into his room. The general asked Birdwell’s wife, Mel, if son Matt had been to see his father. When told that the Birdwells didn’t feel their son could handle the sight, the general said “you need to get him here as quick as you can.” The general knew that Birdwell, now three months after 9/11, had a 1 percent survival chance. “He (Gen. Peake) knew I was dying … my son’s chances to see me before I died were very limited.”

They listened to the advice. As 12-year-old Matt came into the room, he said ‘I love you, Dad.’ And Birdwell mouthed the words, “I love you, son.”

Birdwell said he pleaded for the mercy of death, “but the Lord had another plan. That involved four years of putting me together again.”

He said the miracle of surviving the initial impact and the fire “is a miracle of God’s grace. There are many medical reasons I should have died.”

Birdwell said he disputes the notion that people tell him he survived because of his toughness. “I survived not because I am the toughest man—I survived because the toughest man lived 2,000 years ago and is still in charge and had something else in mind for the Birdwell family.

“There are people who tell me I have a great pain threshold, but instead I say I’ve got a Lord with a great grace threshold.”

And he presented this charge to the crowd: “The character of the nation is not defined by what you see in the checkout line (magazines) at Wal-Mart, but the character of the nation is defined by those who, without notoriety, put on the uniform and deploy to far-distant lands and endure the harshest conditions. Character is defined by the 1 percent who put on that uniform.”

And Birdwell had some advice on how he believes the U.S. should react to those who threaten our freedoms and our way of life.

Referring to the ISIS challenge, Birdwell says some people argue that “we shouldn’t do anything to make them mad.” He said that is the wrong attitude. “I don’t care if we make our enemies mad, but they have to learn not to make us mad.”