News20 Years Later: Texans Remember 9/11

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9/11 Terrorist Attack on Pentagon: 'Angel of Death is standing in the corner'

Texas state senator describes Pentagon attack 20 years later
Posted at 10:05 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 09:58:23-04

AUSTIN, Texas — Duty, honor and faith are just as important now to state Sen. Brian Birdwell as they were 20 years ago, when he survived a terrorist attack on the Pentagon during 9/11.

The retired Army officer told 25 News the Tuesday morning in 2001 started out just like any other in our nation's capital.

"My command board was going to meet," the Republican state senator said. "I was a steady Freddy. I wasn't setting the world on fire."

Brian Birdwell.jpg
State Sen. Brian Birdwell worked in the Pentagon during the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a military aide to the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management.

Birdwell said he remembers one of his coworkers received a call from their daughter living in New York City urging them to turn on the news.

"The news media is covering it and using the word accident," Birdwell said about what he saw unfolding over 200 miles away. "But in short order, we would watch Flight 175 crash into the south tower at nearly 600 miles per hour."

As they quickly realized what was happening in Lower Manhattan, Birdwell said he and his coworkers, Cheryle Sincock and Sandy Taylor, called upon their faith at that moment.

"I would kneel down with Cheryle and Sandy and just lead that prayer that says 'Lord, we love our first responders. Be with them. But it's going to be you doing the bulk of the lifesaving today,' as we continued to watch events unfold," Birdwell said.

That was the last time Birdwell saw the two women alive.

After coming back from the restroom just moments later, Birdwell is immediately thrown by an explosion as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the Pentagon.

"As a heavy forces guy my entire career, man, I've never heard anything this loud," Birdwell said about the airliner crashing into the building. "I've been around tanks, artillery... nothing this loud."

Birdwell was walking back to his office in the Pentagon as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building's western side at 9:37 a.m.

Birdwell said he woke up on fire in the ruins of our nation's military headquarters. He said the enormity of the attack immediately caused him to fear for the worst and reach out to a higher power.

"I said in a loud voice, 'Jesus, I'm coming to see you,' not 'Lord, will you save me from this calamity,'" Birdwell said. "I had crossed that line into the acceptance of my death."

Just when he thought all hope was lost, four fellow soldiers -- Bill McKinnon, Roy Wallace, Chuck Knoblauch and John Davies -- discovered a gravely-injured Birdwell in the hallway.

Birdwell said his body was so torn and battered from the blast, the simple act of moving him pulled flesh from extremities.

"[They] each grab a limb and start to move me," Birdwell said. "In that first exertion to pick me up, the pull chunks off of me."

He said the pain was so excruciating, a desire to die there crossed his mind. Fortunately for Birdwell, the four men used their body weight to hoist him to safety and the care of Air Force doctor John Baxter.

Eventually, Birdwell makes it to Georgetown University hospital for emergency care under trauma physician Dr. Michael Williams.

He credits Williams' expertise in saving his life, as Vice President Dick Cheney's order to shut down U.S. airspace including emergency medical flights.

Birdwell said before he underwent emergency surgery for the burns the gravity of the situation became clear.

"In a burn unit ICU, the Angel of Death is standing in the corner," Birdwell said. "When I get out the ICU, I'm a six-foot infant with a wreck of a body."

Recovery for Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell would be a five-year ordeal after the Pentagon attack on 9/11.

He said getting through the five years of recovery not only took the support and love of his family, but the dependence on faith through almost every act.

Looking back on two decades since the attacks on 9/11, Birdwell said it worth it to protect this country and our freedoms.

Birdwell testified before Congress about his experience on March 31, 2003, which was included in the 9/11 Commission report.

"Was I as much a believer before September 11 as I am now? Yes, sir," Birdwell said. "All those blessings and all those traumas are worth every moment of your freedom and every other citizen in this country's freedom."