Refined by Fire: A Family's Triumph of Love and Faith

Refined by Fire: A Family's Triumph of Love and Faith


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2005 Gold Medallion Award finalist!
When hijacked American Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, LTC (RET) Brian Birdwell was only 15 to 20 yards away. He stepped out into the corridor and was instantly engulfed in flames—burns consumed 60 percent of his body, with almost 40 percent of them third-degree. Thirty-plus operations and countless physical therapy sessions later, his recovery has truly been remarkable, and spiritually he and his family are stronger than ever before. Brian and his wife, Mel, tell their captivating story of God's grace and sovereignty.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780842386036
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Pages: 266
Sales rank: 1,169,996
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

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Refined by fire

A Family's Triumph of Love and Faith
By Brian Birdwell Mel Birdwell Ginger Kolbaba

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Brian and Mel Birdwell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8423-8603-3

Chapter One

Death Blow

* Brian

It was a day like any other at the Pentagon outside Washington DC.

I stepped out of the men's room on the second floor and started down Corridor 4 toward the outermost ring of the building, the E-Ring. The hall of the newly renovated wedge was lit with bright fluorescents in the ceiling panels. Everything was a stark white, sterile, and quiet. No one else was around as I headed back to my office.

It was 9:37 A.M., Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

I took seven or eight steps and was in front of the first set of elevators when bang! There was a deafening explosion.

Where had the sound come from?

It wasn't the jackhammers of the remodeling crew, even though I'd heard them frequently in that wedge of the Pentagon. And after spending nineteen years in the Army-being a Gulf War veteran and having more than ten years as an artillery officer-I was familiar with loud explosions, concussions, and other noises of war. This was louder than anything I'd heard in my lifetime. This was the crashing resonance of metal slamming through concrete-a scraping, screaming, high-pitched, thunderous blast.

Everything happened at once, in less than an instant-a nanosecond. Yet everything seemed in slow motion. Bomb! I thought as I started to take another step.

Immediately everything around me went pitch black, as if I was thrown into a deep, dark cave. A loud whoosh blasted toward me. Fire exploded at and around me, slamming me across the hall, ripping my glasses from my face, and then tossing me limply onto the floor. I heard debris flying around me. The ceiling panels and light fixtures crashed down; the walls shook as if hit by an earthquake. But I couldn't see anything, except for a ring of yellow surrounding me. Then I realized ... I was on fire!

The pain came instantly. The heat was so intense that the polyester pants of my uniform melted into my legs. My arms, back, legs, face, and hair were alight with flames.

Thick smoke engulfed me, slapping me across the face and threatening to suffocate me. I swallowed it as I gasped for air. My mind registered a distinct odor and taste. Jet fuel? I gulped and choked on the heavy vapors and the dust from the building debris as I struggled just to get oxygen.

It was hard to keep my eyes open-the smoke and heat from the fire stung my eyes. I didn't know where the fire was coming from, where the explosion had happened. All I could see was the intense glow of yellow right in front of my face and then around it, total blackness.

My body screamed in pain, but there was nothing to put out the flames.

I'm not sure how long I lay on the floor. It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably only five or ten seconds.

I forced my eyes to open. I tried to get to my feet, but my body wouldn't cooperate. In order to survive whatever this was, I knew I needed to escape-fast.

But which way do I go? Which way to safety? I wondered. I was so disoriented from the blast that I didn't even know which way I was facing after I had been thrown. Was I facing safety or more danger?

It doesn't matter, I told myself. You just need to get away.

I tried hard not to panic, yet it was difficult to stay focused when the pain was so intense and all I could see was that yellow ring of fire with the black around it.

Then there was the awful noise around me-as overwhelming and full of static as though someone was strumming an electric guitar at the highest decibel. Fire alarms added to the shrill sound. I was trying not to pay attention to anything except getting away from the fire, but the cumulative noise pierced my concentration. Worse, I couldn't bring my hands up to cover my ears because I was trying to use them to get off the floor.

I tried to stand four or five times, using my hands and my arms to get up. I'd manage to get on one knee, then I'd fall. My legs wouldn't support me, and I had no balance. The concussion had damaged my inner ear equilibrium. And because it was so black around me, I lost all sense of depth.

I tried desperately to see something-anything-other than the oval of yellow surrounding me. But there was nothing. No wall, no doors, no elevator, nothing. It was as though there was nothing to touch except for whatever I was lying on.

Finally the pain was too much to bear. I tried to stand one last time and fell sideways. In my anguish I screamed, "Jesus! I'm coming to see you!"

I knew I was going to die. As a soldier I'd been trained never to give up. But I did. I didn't try to get up again. Instead, I thought, Okay, Lord, if this is the end for me, if this is the way I am to die, then okay.

I shut my eyes and thought about what a horrific death this was. Then I thought about Mel, my wife, and our son, Matt. My mind recalled the events of the morning before I left for work. Did they know what was happening to me? I didn't want this morning to be the last time I'd ever see them. I remembered saying good-bye to them just a few hours earlier, never dreaming that I might not come home again. What would their lives be like without me around?

This is it, I realized. I won't see them again....

* Mel

For Matt, our twelve-year-old son, and me, September 11 began as a normal day, complete with homeschooling. Earlier that year, because of some classroom situations in Matt's public school, we had decided to take him out for a year to homeschool him.

While we were working on a science experiment, my friend Joyce phoned. "Mel, a plane just smashed into the World Trade Center!" Matt and I moved into the living room and flipped on the television for a bit. We watched as the second plane flew into the other tower. Matt kept asking me questions, but I could only answer, "Honey, I have no idea what is going on."

It never dawned on me that what we'd just seen on television might be a terrorist attack.

I wanted to keep watching, but I was also homeschooling. "Okay, Matt, let's get back to your studies," I told him and turned off the television. We'd just finished an experiment using pie pans and water to show how water evaporates and leaves a residue behind. We were so excited that this experiment had actually worked since Matt and I weren't too great at science experiments. We'd even left the pie pan sitting out to reenact our successful experiment for Brian later that evening when he arrived home.

Matt and I moved back to the kitchen island to work on our history lesson.

Actually, as I thought about it later, I realized how odd it was that we turned off the television. Normally I wouldn't have done that. I would have phoned or e-mailed Brian at work to give him the news. Yet for some reason I had an uneasy feeling about calling him.

We were in the middle of history when our neighbor Sara called. "Is your TV on?" she asked. Her voice sounded panicky.

"No, we're working on history."

"The Pentagon has been hit."

I nearly dropped the phone. I couldn't believe it. I yelled to Matt, "The Pentagon has been hit!" and raced toward the television.

It felt as if I were running in slow motion to get to that television.

I flipped it on and watched in horror as giant flames shot from the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon. The news showed an aerial view of the flames everywhere and the black smoke spewing from the building.

Then I spotted the Pentagon air traffic control tower and helipad. Behind it I could see the blazing fire and smoke.

I gasped. Oh no. No, no, no!

Matt kept saying, "Mom, that's not Dad's side of the building! Dad is on the other side of the building! It's not him."

But I knew the truth. Brian's office was behind that helipad-and his window had flames coming out of it. Brian's department had just moved into that newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon eight to ten weeks earlier. When he'd moved in, I had gone with him to help unpack boxes. I had sat at his desk and watched the rain fall on that helipad. I had looked out that window that now had flames spitting from it.

"Mom," Matt said, increasingly looking scared, "that's not Dad!"

"Honey, I pray you're right," was all I could say. I felt in my heart he wasn't right. But what could I say to him? "No, Matt, you're wrong"? I knew that no matter what happened, I had to be strong for my son. I couldn't fall apart.

Yet all I really wanted to do was to start screaming. For us, for Brian. Instead, with a calm that was not my own, I said, "Matt, honey, let's pray for Dad."

I've never prayed so hard in my life. We prayed for Brian to be safe, for him not to be in the office, for him to be out running an errand, retrieving documents, in a meeting, even getting a doughnut for his boss! Something, anything. Just please, please don't let him be in his office.

After Matt and I prayed, I tried to call Brian's office, and the phone rang and rang, as if nothing had happened and yet all of the people were suddenly gone. It was creepy. Then I called Brian's cell phone. While I knew he wouldn't have his cell phone on because it didn't work inside the thick walls of the Pentagon, I was hoping against hope that, for some reason, he might have turned it on. When I got his voice mail, I hung up.

We were glued to the television set. The more I watched the gruesomeness, the enormity of what had happened, the more my heart told me this wasn't going to be a good outcome. I sat on the couch and knew that if Brian had been sitting at his desk or in his department, he was now standing at the throne of God. We would never see him again.

My mind battled between staying calm and going hysterical. I knew I couldn't think the worst or I would fall apart. So I called my friend Debbie Vance, who attends our church, and explained that I was sure we were in big trouble. Then I asked her to come over. I needed a friend for comfort and support, someone just to sit with me. I also asked her to call our church and tell our pastors that Brian was in the area of the Pentagon that had been hit and to ask them to pray for him.

While we waited for Debbie to arrive, Matt started to melt down. He became overwhelmed with the realization of what was happening and began punching the walls in the dining room. He cried. He yelled. He groaned. He paced back and forth around the house. And he kept telling me, "No, Dad's okay. It's not his side of the building. He's fine. Fine."

It was gut-wrenching to watch him. No twelve-year-old should have to go through what our son did. No mom should have to watch, helpless. It was agonizing to feel so intensely powerless.

While we waited for any word, I phoned Brian's mom, his brother, Wade, and my best friend, Karen, in North Carolina. I told them that Brian's area had been hit, but that was all I knew.

That was the most difficult-not knowing. I was watching my husband's office burning and had no idea where he was or how he was. I needed to know what had happened to him. I needed to know he was alive.

Just then the doorbell rang. It was one of my neighbors, who wanted to offer support but didn't know what to say. We stood awkwardly silent at the door for a few minutes, then I told him I needed to get back to the television, to see if the newscasters had any more details.

Finally Matt couldn't take it anymore. "I have to get out of here," he said and ran out of the house.

I called my sister, Connie. I was pretty calm talking to everybody else-I was able to give them what details I knew to get through the conversations. But as soon as Connie answered the phone, I started to sob.

"I don't know how I can do this without Brian," I cried. "I don't think he's going to survive this. What am I going to do? How are Matt and I going to go on? How is Matt going to go on without a dad?" We both sobbed uncontrollably on the phone. But when Matt returned, I wiped my eyes, told Connie I needed to go, then tried to pull myself together.

We waited and watched TV for another two hours. While we waited to hear news of Brian, Matt took several walks. And all the while I kept praying-praying for the best but thinking the worst.

* Brian

I'd stopped moving. This is the end, I thought. I was still gasping for air; it felt as if I'd opened an oven door and was breathing in the hot air. Yet I wouldn't struggle anymore-even though the fire and pain seared through my body. At that moment the building became absolutely quiet to me. I didn't hear the shrill, blaring sounds still screeching around me.

I lay on the floor and wondered when my soul would depart from my body-and what it would feel like. While I didn't know exactly what to expect, I knew it had to be better than what I was currently enduring. As I focused on eternity, I was enveloped by an absolute silence, an absolute peace ... as if what was happening in the building wasn't really happening. I was separated from everything going on around me. God was in that place with me-it was just him and me. And while the pain was excruciating, I felt indescribable peace.

I waited to see the light of that tunnel into eternity, which I'd heard so many people with near-death experiences discuss. So I waited.

And waited.

But the light never came.

I lay there waiting, with my face toward the ground. While it may have taken no more than two minutes, it felt like hours. I had no sense of time or space. I started to think, Okay, Lord. Come on. Let's get on with this thing. What are you waiting for? I'm here. I'm ready.

Suddenly, on the left side of my face, I felt something trickle past my eye and run down my cheek. It wasn't a huge gush, just a small stream. It wasn't warm, so I knew it wasn't blood. It was cold; it was water. Somehow I had landed under one of the working sprinkler systems, and the sprinkler began dousing the fire that was consuming me.

My face was the only place I could feel the water. Because of my sensory overload, the rest of my body was reacting as if I were completely numb, so I didn't know if I was wet anywhere else. I just knew I was no longer on fire.

Smoke still swirled around me; nothing had changed. But with the touch of that water, everything changed: My courage was renewed to try to escape again.

I opened my eyes. My face was pointed toward the ground. As I looked around at floor level I could see large pieces of sheet rock, splintered two-by-fours, glass, aluminum framing, ceiling panels, lighting fixtures, electrical wiring everywhere.

I could see the floor because the smoke was still above me, so I glanced behind me. It was black. Then I looked in front of me and saw a dim light in the distance, down a long stretch of corridor.


Excerpted from Refined by fire by Brian Birdwell Mel Birdwell Ginger Kolbaba Copyright © 2004 by Brian and Mel Birdwell. Excerpted by permission.
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