Life changed forever on September 11, 2001, for Brian and Mel Birdwell.
Mel was home-schooling her 12-year-old son, Matt, when a neighbor called to tell her the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane. "We turned the TV on," she says, "and watched it for a few minutes. And, very uncharacteristic for me ... we turned it off."
Mel assumed that her husband, Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, was safe at the Pentagon. He worked on the second floor of the outermost ring (E Ring) of the building, overlooking the helipad.
Brian, too, had heard of the attack on the World Trade Towers. After watching live coverage of the events in his boss' office, he stepped into the men's room. As Brian was returning to his own office, a tremendous explosion threw him to the floor and a fireball engulfed his body. American Airlines Flight 77 had slammed into the Pentagon, and he was only 15-20 yards from the point of impact.
He felt excruciating pain from burns that would cover 60 percent of his body. He tried to navigate his way out of the hellish nightmare, but couldn't. "One minute I'm standing in a very clear corridor and I know what direction I'm walking," he remembers, "and the next moment it's fire, and smoke, and darkness around me."
Feeling hopeless, Brian thought there was no way out of the inferno. He says, "I faced the finality of my life; I knew that I was dying at that moment. I thought about Mel and Matt. I thought, What a terrible way to go. Shortly after that realization, I cried out, 'Jesus, I'm coming to see you.'"
Brian gave up and collapsed to the floor just before the building's fire sprinkler system activated. The water extinguished the flames on his clothes, back, and arms, and he stumbled down the hall. He was seen by an officer and taken to a triage area where he called out to one of his friends. Brian says, "He had to look at my nametag to recognize me."
Mel was oblivious to the horror her husband was experiencing until she received another phone call announcing, "The Pentagon has been hit!" She and Matt quickly turned the television on.
"As soon as I saw that the hit was by the helipad, I knew we were in big trouble," Mel recalls. "It was really, really tough for Matt because he knew where his dad's office was and he did not want to admit that ... I knew if he were in his office that he was standing at the throne of God."
While on a stretcher outside the Pentagon, Brian pleaded, "Call my wife, call my wife" to people nearby. A woman, who had been praying over Brian, wrote Mel's phone number in her Bible. When the woman called her husband, she asked him to call Mel, and he did. Mel had waited two long hours to hear if her husband was alive. "Matt and I were almost doing cartwheels," she says. "We were so excited. It was just the greatest moment to get that phone call!"
Mel asked a neighbor to drive her to Georgetown Hospital, where Brian had been taken. As they drove, she could see black smoke from the Pentagon billowing in the distance. When traffic reached a standstill on a bridge, she left the car and began walking ... running ... frantically trying to reach her husband of 14 years. She finally flagged a policeman down, and he drove her to the hospital. "I just remember being anxious and nervous," she says, "I felt like I could never get there. I kept thinking ... This cannot be happening."
When Mel finally walked into Brian's hospital room she said, "Okay, God, I don't know how I am going to get through this.' " As she recalls, "It was frightening to look at him. It felt like I had been hit in the gut with a baseball bat." She was allowed in the "sterile" room for only a minute or so before she was whisked away-doctors wanted to prevent any possibility of infection on Brian's burns.
Mel slumped into a chair, wept, and asked for a Bible. A few short hours later Brian was taken to Washington Hospital Center's regional burn unit, where he spent the next three months.
A painful healing
Visiting hours at the hospital were from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Every morning, at 8 a.m. sharp, Brian would look for his bride—and she was always there. "In my eye contact I had locked on my helpmate," he says. "I always saw Mel first thing at 8 a.m."
Brian says that Mel's faithfulness "was a confirmation of our wedding vows ... in sickness and in health." He and Mel were married on May 16, 1987—a hot, Oklahoma day. Mel had always felt that marriage is for life. She says, "I watched my mom suffer through a tough marriage." Her mom's commitment to her dad came to Mel's mind time and time again during Brian's hospitalization.
Brian was not sure what the future held for him, but he knew Mel would be in that future. He says, "Mel was the constant for me. ... She was the communication hub for everything going on in that hospital."
While recuperating, Brian was awarded the Purple Heart and also received a memorable visit from his commander-in-chief. He had been prepped for surgery just before President Bush's visit. The flesh from his arms was gone and only muscle could be seen. "The President comes in [the hospital room] and says, 'Col. Birdwell,' and he salutes," Mel recalls. "And Brian attempts to return the salute, and the President sees that he's returning the salute and stands there and holds his salute with tears in his eyes."
Over the next months, Mel watched her husband suffer the greatest pain imaginable on earth. Yet she never felt bitter at God. When asked if God had forgotten her, she replied, "Oh, no, no ... not [for] one second."
She says, "If you don't have God in your life, you have yourself to depend on. ... Without God, you have to go out and do battle on your own. It's hard ... to understand how much easier life can be when you do not have to worry about fighting for the outcome of it, because God has a plan."
Instead of choosing bitterness, Brian and Mel have chosen thankfulness. "The thing that we have always done," Mel says, "is thank God for the grace and mercy that He showed Brian that day for sparing his life."
Brian adds, "When I came out of the men's rest room, had I made it back to my office, I would have crossed the path that the plane entered the building. So without question, the Lord was guiding my actions that day."
Sharing their faith
God had a plan for Brian Birdwell on September 11, and it wasn't time for this soldier to go home to the Lord. After more than 25 surgeries, Lt. Col. Birdwell went home to his family on December 14, 2001.
After Brian came home from the hospital, Mel watched their wedding video. As Brian's stepfather performed the ceremony he had said, "May God guide you in the bad that may darken your days and the good that may light your way." Although neither Brian nor Mel would have chosen the catastrophic events of September 11, they have seen much good from it. "What Mel and I and Matt have with our relationship with God and each other far exceeds the physical aspects of the scars and the inability that that carries," Brian says.
Before September 11, Brian was reserved about sharing his faith. Today he says, "Now I don't have any problem with that. The Lord has given me quite a basic load of information, so to speak...
"I did not enjoy ... the day of having the finality of my life in front of me, in darkness, burning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have God Almighty tell you, 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'"
The story of God's faithfulness to the Birdwells has appeared in newspapers throughout the nation and on network television news shows. Mel said on ABC's "Nightline," "We want [our son Matt] to know that through everything that has happened that Brian has been cradled in God's hands through this and that nothing has touched his dad that God has not sifted through His fingers."
In 2003, Mel was presented with the Robertson McQuilkin Award, given annually by FamilyLife to a spouse who demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to keeping their marriage covenant. "FamilyLife Today" co-host Bob Lepine introduced the Birdwells to the audience at an I Still Do™ conference that day. He said:
"We are honoring the courageous love of a marriage covenant-keeper. ... We thought of Mel really as a representative of the men and women who this year have been affected by the tragedy of 9/11--those who are married to firefighters or rescue workers and those men and women who are married to people in the military who have been deployed and are now sacrificing on our behalf."
Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife adds:
"In an age that has become a culture of divorce, Mel Birdwell has shown a watching world commitment to Brian and to her marriage covenant. Mel is a special woman who has persevered and loved well, despite some very difficult circumstances. I applaud her faith, courage, and commitment to real family values." Mel's actions demonstrate her belief that marriage is meant to glorify God. She says, "He [Brian] is a gift that God has given to me twice-May 16, 1987, and ... again on September 11, 2001.
9/11 was no ordinary day-for the Birdwells, our nation, or the world. It was a day that saw the cruel consequences of evil and the merciful hand of a loving God.
© 2003 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.