Brian Birdwell - 9/11 Survivor at Pentagon | Compelled Podcast | Sept. 11, 2001

#27 9/11 Survivor at the Pentagon – Brian Birdwell

Texas State Senator Brian Birdwell was at the Pentagon on 9/11 when American Airlines flight 77 crashed just yards away from him, instantly engulfing his body in flames.

Brian was faced with certain death but also with complete peace in knowing that his faith was already placed in a Savior. His story is raw, true, and filled with miracles.

The following is a summary of the podcast interview above. Many more details are included in the original podcast episode and we encourage you to listen.

Simple Beginnings

Brian Birdwell grew up in a Christian household and made his own commitment to Christ when he was 10 years old at a James Robison crusade in California. 

Brian came from a long line of family members who had served in the U.S. military, and he was commissioned in the Army shortly after graduating from college. He met his future wife, Mel, and they were married in 1987. A couple of years later, their son Matthew was born.

While the faith in Christ that Brian and his wife Mel professed was sincere, they both realized that most of the time they were simply going through the motions. The stress of Brian’s military career and multiple family issues eventually led them to the conclusion that only God could guide them through their struggles.

In 1996 they made a renewed commitment to follow Christ alone, no matter where that led. Little did they know the impact that decision would have on their lives just a few years later.

They eventually settled down in Washington D.C. where Brian worked at the Pentagon. They had comfortable lives, Brian’s career in the military was solidly mapped out, and they were blessed with a welcoming church family. In short, their lives were perfect.

But on September 11th, 2001, all of that changed in an instant.

Just Like Any Other Day

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Brian’s day began just like any other. He arrived at the Pentagon early and settled in for the day’s work. 

Then, around 8:50 AM, one of his co-workers received a phone call from her daughter who lived in New York City about a plane that had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Immediately, Brian and his two coworkers turned on a television to see what was happening. 

At first the news media was reporting that the crash was a terrible accident. But already, Brian began suspecting that foul play was at hand. All suspicion was removed, though, when he watched a second plane crash into the second World Trade Center tower on live television.

The situation was appalling, and Brian immediately led his two other coworkers in a simple prayer asking that God would be with the first responders as they fought to save lives that day. Little did Brian know that his two coworkers would be dead within minutes and that he himself would be left in critical condition. 

A Walk Down the Hallway

After their prayer, Brian excused himself to the men’s bathroom which was just down the hallway. When he was done, Brian began walking back towards his office but, just as he entered the hallway, American Airlines Flight 77 came crashing into the building at 530 miles per hour.

[include image of the graphic that Zach put together?]

The plane was moving with such momentum that, as it hit the Pentagon, it began turning inside out, instantly killing all of the passengers and hijackers on board as well as anyone in its path. The plane was loaded with fuel and immediately burst into a blazing furnace.

Brian was instantly engulfed in flames and thrown across the hallway from the impact of the explosion.

In Grave Danger

Brian was dazed but conscious. Black smoke surrounded him everywhere that he looked. Coughing and fighting to catch his breath, he began inhaling aerosolized jet fuel that was over 300 degrees Fahrenheit which quickly damaged his lungs. But that was the least of Brian’s worries.

His body was screaming in pain and, with horror, Brian realized the yellow glow he could see was coming from himself. He was on fire, and his flesh was melting off!

He needed to escape quickly. Desperately, Brian tried standing up but every time he did, he fell over. The fire alarms in the building were shrieking, and it was hard not to panic. Time and time again, Brian tried standing but all he could do was simply fall over.

The choking smoke was so dense that Brian couldn’t see beyond his own face. All that he could see was the yellow glow surrounding him from the flames that were still consuming his flesh. The pain was excruciating.

Finally, Brian crashed to the floor one last time, still unable to see around him or find an exit. There was no hope. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t get oriented, and he couldn’t stop the flames. He was going to die.

Brian finally screamed out, “Jesus! I’m coming to see you!”

Then Brian did the one thing that he was trained in the military to never do. He surrendered… and waited for the flames to overcome him.

Indescribable Peace

Once Brian had submitted his life to God’s will and waited to be taken to the Heavenly kingdom he felt an immeasurable peace settle into his heart. Although the pain was excruciating, the tranquility overpowered it.

Although the fire alarms blared and the flames from the fire roared, Ryan listened as all the sounds receded away and were replaced by silence. He was ready to go home.

Different Plans

But God had other plans. As Ryan waited, he noticed a strange sensation on his face. Water. 

By a miracle, he had come to rest underneath one of the few functioning sprinkler heads in the disaster area, and it was sprinkling directly onto his body.

The flames were doused and so too were Brian’s resignation to dying. For some unknown reason, God had spared his life at this moment, and Brian knew that he had to move quickly if he wanted to remain alive.

Quick Action

Brian was able to find a wall and then begin sliding and shuffling away from the crash site and deeper into the Pentagon where he hoped to find safety.

After progressing sufficiently far away enough from the flames, Brian could finally see the damage done to his body. It was horrific. His flesh had been burned to a crisp and chunks of it were hanging off of him.

Worse yet, when he reached the end of the corridor, he found that the fire doors had been closed shut and they could only be opened from the other side.

The fire in the Pentagon was spreading, and the smoke was working its way back toward him again. If the doors wouldn’t open, Brian would be trapped by the fire and would die, either of his wounds, smoke inhalation, or the approaching flames.

A Second Miracle

Just then, a door opened and four men stepped out looking for any survivors. Some of them were Brian’s colleagues, and they were aghast at the sight of him stumbling out of the smoke. Brian was so terribly burned that they couldn’t recognize him.

Brian collapsed in front of them. As they tried picking him up to carry him to safety, chunks of Brian’s flesh ripped off in their hands. 

Eventually they reached a temporary medical relief station inside the Pentagon where Brian was given an IV and morphine. 

Just then, a complete stranger named Natalie, who was evacuating the Pentagon with the horde of other occupants, saw Brian and came to his side. She stated that she was a Christian and that God wanted her to pray with him.

Together they recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. Even though Brian’s body was trembling from shock, his heart was incredibly encouraged.

A Long Road to Recovery 

Brian was then rushed to an emergency room at a hospital in a different part of the city, and the doctors immediately began the first of many life-saving surgeries.

Over 60% of his body had been burned, and nearly half of those were 3rd degree burns. His path to recovery would require several excruciating procedures and treatments.

Brian Today

Today, after 39 surgeries and reconstructive operations, Brian is able to live a life that many said he never would.

Brian is the first to give all praise to God, not only for preserving his life, but, even more importantly, for sparing his soul through the death of his son Jesus. 

Brian believes without a shadow of a doubt that God let him survive this trial so that he might be a stronger witness for God’s Kingdom. 

When Brian remembers the events of 9/11 and those who died, he also remembers that God was there in the midst of the tragedy and will be in any future tragedy yet to come.

Book Giveaway

Win a copy of Brian’s book Refined by Fire using the entry form below.

Note: Winner must live within the United States or Canada.

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Note: Winner must live within the United States or Canada.

Show Notes

Brian’s website:

Brian’s book: “Refined by Fire

Brian’s office and location at impact (click to zoom in)
2006 address at the Republican Party of Texas State Convention before 12,000 attendees
“I Am Second” testimony from 2011
U.S. Department of Defense video showing AA Flight 77 flight path and impact