A Terrorist Act
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian and Mel Birdwell
Married: May 16, 1987
Hometown: Manassas, Virginia
Children: 1 son
I was run over by a 757," retired Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell explains as he lifts his scarred arms and hands and points at his singed ears. "Whenever we drive past a KFC, we laugh that I'm the extra crispy kind."
He and his wife, Mel, are able to bring lightness to their situation now. But on September 11, 2001, Brian's life hung in that delicate balance between life and death.
At 9:37, Brian was walking toward his office when American Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon, 20 yards from where he stood. Immediately, Brian was doused in flames and jet fuel.
"I knew I was going to die," says Brian. "The thought of never seeing Mel or my son, Matt, again was the worst feeling in the world."
Mel was watching the horrific scene on television as the flames shot from her husband's office. "We prayed he wasn't in there," she says. "But I feared the worst."
Miraculously, Brian was able to get to safety. But he was burned over 60 percent of his body (40 percent were third degree burns), and had to endure months of excruciating therapy and more than 30 surgeries.
When he arrived at Georgetown University Hospital, minutes from death, the physician told him they had to operate immediately.
"I knew this could be it," says Brian. "So I asked for a chaplain to pray with me. Then I gave my ring to a friend and told him, 'Give this to Mel. And tell her, I always loved her.'"
"The first time I saw him [after he was rescued], I didn't recognize him. He was incredibly swollen and ghastly white," says Mel. "I knew my Brian would never be the same."1