A Sept. 11 article about survivors of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon two years ago misspelled the name of a worker who was killed, Marian Serva. (Published 9/12/03)

The darkness went on a grimly long time, and Juan Cruz-Santiago was not sure it would ever lift. It outlasted the early days, when doctors sewed his eyelids shut to protect what was left of his sight. It obscured his sense of the surrounding world through 40 surgeries and 87 days in a hospital bed, through his homecoming and his whispered prayers and month after month of slow healing.

Then, unexpectedly, he began to detect outlines and shapes. He saw his way through his hallway and living room. He took in his wife's dark eyes, his daughter's smile, the pink roses he had planted years before outside his kitchen window. "This we thought would never happen," said his wife, Veronica.

Two years after he was nearly killed at the Pentagon, Cruz can also see in vivid detail what before he could only feel and imagine: the amputated stubs of his fingers, the scorching burns on his neck, the bone-deep wound on his scarred leg. He is still undergoing surgery, still on painkillers -- better than he once was, never the same.

"It is not over," he said one recent day, sitting at the kitchen table of his Woodbridge home.

For him, the wounds of that terrible September day are lasting -- and so intense that only recently has he begun to absorb how incredibly damaged his body was. Burns covered 70 percent of his skin. For weeks, any unexpected turn in his condition raised the specter of dying. Nine of his employees in managerial accounting were killed, including his wife's best friend, Diana Padro.

With his returning sight, with a sharper awareness of all that has happened, he and his wife happened to drive past the Pentagon last week. Cruz was struck by the building's appearance. In him it did not elicit the sense of pride that military leaders had expressed.

He wondered instead about the rendering of memory.

"It looks like nothing ever happened," he said quietly. Maybe it's not really the case, he said, but "I had the feeling that people had forgotten."

Fighting Their Way Back

Two years after the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, Juan Cruz-Santiago and five other Pentagon survivors stand as living reminders of what the nation suffered on that singular Tuesday morning.

Each of them had the remarkable good fortune to escape the flames of the incinerating jetliner. But each was burned to the brink of death. They were rushed in and out of operating rooms, prayed for by relatives and chaplains, attached to one life-saving machine after another.

They spent weeks in intensive care and then fought their way back to the living.

They did this through medical procedures that shaved off their skin and through a pain so wretched that they counted the minutes until the next dose of drugs. They held on through the grief of losing co-workers, through physical therapies that made them sob, through the daily frustration of no longer being able to drive a car or tie a shoe or hold a cheeseburger or zip up a pair of pants.

"These injuries are almost unfathomable to most people," said James C. Jeng, a burn doctor at Washington Hospital Center who treated the six, as well as a seventh patient who died, Antoinette Sherman. "It's almost more difficult to deal with having survived the injury than to have died in the flames."

For them, life has seemed stuck on one torturous moment, as if a clock stopped in the worst dark of night. Their recovery has so far spanned 730 difficult days, with thousands of gauzy bandages and thick creams and swallowed pills and no assurances of when they would feel well again.

"It's in our nature, our character as Americans, to overcome great adversity," reflected Kevin Shaeffer, one of the critically injured. "But there's a great risk in that -- in that you forget where you've been."

'Why Am I Still Here?'

Slowly his fingers traced over the names. John Yates stood inside the Pentagon, in a gleaming room near the path of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, gazing at two stark black panels etched with line after line of names.

Near the well-lighted wall panels were the words "America's Heroes," with a guest book for leaving messages and biographies about many of the 184 men, women and children who died.

This was the Pentagon's ground zero, now its own memorial.

"I knew him," Yates said, pausing. Then: "I knew him, too." But the more Yates saw, the more the sadness accumulated in his voice.

When he got to the name of Marian Silva, he could no longer speak.

He closed his eyes.

His body swayed.

On that day of unimaginable harm, Silva had called him to come look at television coverage of events in New York. Now he faced the question: Would he be alive today if she had not urged him to walk over to where he stood when the plane struck?

The two workers occupied nearby offices for 10 years. They had talked about their families while standing in line at the snack bar. She was friendly, outgoing. He could not reconcile why he was alive and burned and she, having stood three feet away, was dead.

"Why am I still here, especially in relation to these four people who were next to me?" he asked. But he has come to terms with it in some ways. "I've accepted the fact that God has something else for me to do," he said.

In all, Yates lost 24 colleagues in the Army's office of the deputy chief of staff for personnel, where he was a civilian security manager.

It has not been an easy survival.

Yates, now 52, was critically injured, with 35 percent of his body burned, the worst wounds on his hands and arms.

In February 2002, he walked haltingly back into the Pentagon to do his job again, wearing Dockers and a collared shirt, with his security badge dangling around his neck. He trembled on the way to his relocated office.

His first order of business: He had to delete the names of his colleagues from his security computer database.

It was the toughest thing he has done on the job -- and he could not bring himself to delete e-mails from his dead colleagues. "At some point, maybe I will," he said. "But maybe I never will."

In his mind, his return to the Pentagon was a victory over Osama bin Laden.

"I had 24 good friends that were murdered that day that I had to come back for, and also for myself, because it is part of the healing process," he said.

He has returned to the office ever since, a daily leap of faith in spite of continuous emotional fallout. When he learned that his agency would be moving back to the crash site, Yates decided it was too much. He searched for and found a security position within a different Army agency at the Pentagon.

Not long after leaving the hospital, he said, he started seeing a psychologist, who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

At one point, she asked him about his goals.

"I want to be the guy I was when I left for work that morning," he said.

That just can't happen, she told him.

He and his wife, Ellen, who had been married less than 16 months the day he was hurt, have tried to remake their lives.

If he goes out to a store, she calls after him: "Be careful. I love you." When he leaves for work in the morning, he wakes his wife to say: "I love you. I'll talk to you later." John Yates thinks of it this way: "You never know. We appreciate each day that comes."

On Sept.11, 2001, he said, "I thought I was going to die and I didn't, and so I know I was very, very, very, very . . . there aren't enough verys . . . fortunate. All of us who lived through this and have come out of this as good as we have are fortunate."

But there is still a long way to go.

One night recently, Ellen Yates had a nightmare, and she started screaming in her sleep. In her dream, someone was trying to tell her Sept. 11 was over and done with -- a fact of the past, no longer of consequence.

"No. No. No!" she yelled. "You don't understand."

'I'm a Changed Person'

Across the river and 10 miles east of the Pentagon, the last two years have gone a different way. Luticia Hook sits not at a desk in a carpeted military office, but on the shaded front porch of her red-brick duplex in Southeast Washington. She will never work again.

Her life has become unexpectedly bound to the place where she and her husband raised two children and carried sacks of groceries to elderly neighbors and chatted with friends across raised lawns and wrought-iron railings.

On the day she returned from the hospital, after three months and 13 surgeries, she found herself sobbing at the sight of her kitchen. "It was three months and one week since I left that kitchen," said Hook, 55.

This she remembered one recent day beneath her porch awning. She waved her right hand every now and then to neighbors in the street because everyone knows her and this was the hand that functions best. Her left hand was so singed by fire that her fingers had to be amputated. What remained she now cradled in her lap -- a thin palm, wrapped in bandages and prone to seizing pain.

With her husband, Anthony, beside her, she talked about how they went looking for a new house a while back, for something better suited to her physical limitations. Her legs, rippled with skin grafts and burns, do not work the way they used to. Neither do her hips.

"I found something wrong with every house we looked at," she said.

Anthony Hook quietly nodded his head.

"None of them were right," she said.

Anthony reminded her that the idea was a one-floor rambler. No stairs.

"It wasn't my house," she said. Her voice lowered to a whisper.

"I just wanted to keep something," she said finally.

In her old life, Hook was all get-up-and-go, an avid shopper and bowler who drove a sporty red Chevrolet Cavalier and worked at the Pentagon for 28 years. "Tick," as everyone calls her, loved her job as a managerial support specialist. On a wall near her desk she kept a photo collage of her colleagues' children. She was so close to her boss that she bought birthday gifts -- for him and his wife.

Now her boss is gone, lost in the flames of Sept. 11, 2001.

Her own injuries are life-altering. Burned on 45 percent of her body, she lost not just her fingers but part of her left side.

Strangely, she says, there are other things that seem different. Her memory is not what it was, and sometimes she struggles to read or say certain words.

Her new life has been daring in simpler ways.

There was the day early this year that she vowed to tie a shoe. She laughed, remembering that when she proudly finished, her injured left arm was stuck in the laces.

When she pulled on her arm, the shoe snapped up and hit her in the face.

"It was sloppy," she said, "but the shoe was tied."

On another day, just six weeks ago, she needed to run an errand to the cleaners.

"You want me to take you?" Anthony Hook asked, which was a joke because he took her anywhere she needed to go.

"I'll drive," she decided right then. "I'll take myself."

Hook had not driven alone in two years, not since Sept. 11.

As she made the 10-minute trip, she prayed. "There were just two people in the car, just God and me. I told Him, 'You got me this far, please don't leave me now.' "

When she succeeded, Hook said, "it was like I was getting a little of my independence back. I was the happiest person at the cleaners."

In the hospital, she recalled, she found inspiration in taped prayers sent by her 12-year-old grandson, Adonis. Her family took shifts at her bedside -- husband, daughter, son, son-in-law. Anthony Hook had just ended a 33-year career with the telephone company. "I didn't know why I retired, to be truthful," he said.

That soon became clear. Every day for a time, there were hospitals, doctors, tests, therapists, pharmacies. "I have never heard a negative word come out of his mouth, like 'This is too hard,' " she said.

In the second year of her ordeal, Hook found that the difficult adjustments only went on. With great hope, she had agreed to join her daughter on a trip to Las Vegas last October. But once there, she couldn't walk to casinos. She was continuously tired.

"Las Vegas was my favorite place to go, and every year I went," she said. "This time, I didn't have fun. I got depressed. I couldn't do what I used to." Now, she said, "I know that I'm a changed person. I know that I have limits. But it took that for me to see it."

A year later, she is going to try Las Vegas again, but a different kind of trip -- taking in shows that allow her to stay put and making a drive to the Grand Canyon.

She says she is not at all ready for the memorial at the Pentagon, or any place too close to the path of the hijacked plane. "I know if I walked in and opened up that door, I would see my old desk, even though it's not there," she said. "The flashback would be too much."

To mark Sept. 11, she plans to go to church and stay close to the home that makes her happy. "I just thank God every day that he brought me out," she said.

'I Can't Complain'

Two years ago, Brian Birdwell could not use a toilet, eat a meal, even talk. Now he pushes his aching 41-year-old body through a morning jog that takes him from the grounds of the Pentagon to the Lincoln Memorial.

Every day without fail, he is out of breath. His still-wounded arms throb. He is forced to slow to a walk at some point. But the workout is important to getting beyond his physical limitations. "It's a huge amount of progress," he said.

On. Sept. 11, 2001, Birdwell could not even stand. More than 60 percent of his body was burned, with the worst injuries on his arms and hands, which are grafted from the armpits down. Cruelly, each skin graft requires removing skin from an unharmed part of the body.

More than 30 surgeries later, Birdwell has regained some of his former appearance, including a full head of brown hair. Still, his wife, Mel, notices how people sometimes stare. His ears, about half their normal size, appear almost melted. His face and neck are ridged with scar tissue. His arms do not bend normally. Neither do his hands.

"I'm not too self-conscious about any of it," Brian Birdwell said brightly. "I think I look pretty good for a guy who got run over by a 757." This is one of his favorite punch lines, and he tells it the same way he did when he was bandaged from head to toe in the hospital.

He considers humor important, along with family support and religious faith.

"The Lord has been absolutely gracious to allow me to be where I am today, and if walking around with some of the scars I have today is the price of living, I can't complain," he said.

After two years, in fact, Birdwell came to believe his injuries might be useful, not just painful. He and his wife have started a faith-based nonprofit organization, Face the Fire, to help burn patients across the country and deliver a Christian message. Last week they met with trauma workers in El Paso. Today they are invited speakers at a church in Orlando.

"There is a validity and an authority when you wear the scars," Birdwell said. "You've been through it, and it makes the burn patients take notice and listen."

The idea for the group started with a hospital visit Birdwell received from a firefighter who had been badly burned and made a strong recovery. Later, Birdwell went to the bedside of Wright Sigmund, burned in a D.C. pipe bomb explosion last year.

For now, Birdwell is still a lieutenant colonel in the Army, having returned to the Pentagon on March 12, 2002, wearing pressure garments on his many burns. With his arms still wounded, he was unable to carry his briefcase the whole way, in spite of his best efforts.

"At the end of the day, I would pick him up at the Metro and he would immediately fall asleep in the car," his wife said. His new job, in environmental policy, is less demanding than the one he once had, but Birdwell feels satisfied just to be in the office again.

"It was very important to go back to work. First and foremost, this is a building to be honored. In my view, there is holy ground in Corridor 4," where his colleagues perished, Birdwell said. Two of his nearest co-workers died. Even now, he can get choked up when he talks about them.

Sometimes, when he sees a plane, "I think about the kind of evil that must have been in those cockpits to fly 80-ton aircraft into buildings."

On that horrible September day, Birdwell happened to be leaving a restroom near his office. For perhaps 60 seconds, he was consumed by a fireball. He called out to God. "It took a while to figure out I was still alive," he said. "I kept waiting for my soul to depart from my body."

Finally he became aware of liquid running down his face -- water from the building's sprinkler system. He staggered toward rescuers. Had he been 20 seconds farther down the hallway, he said, "I would have been dead."

He was walking toward the point of impact.

"To be alive," he said, remains "nothing short of a miracle." Last week, his 14-year-old son, Matt, started high school. On recent weekends, father and son have played ball and gone fishing -- neither of which Birdwell does the way he used to. Still, "every day we wake up is a victory," he said.

'It's a Miracle'

Kevin Shaeffer was, in the beginning, one of the least stable of the critically injured. Doctors suspected the dark-haired Navy lieutenant had ingested jet fuel and inhaled too much smoke, which had damaged his lungs. His low point came Oct. 4, 2001, when he suffered two heart attacks as his body tried to fight off an infection in his lungs and arms.

That night the doctors told his wife, Blanca: "He might not make it to the morning."

At their urging, Blanca signed military retirement papers, which would improve the benefits to his survivors.

Shaeffer lived. But his return to strength and stability was an all-consuming battle.

The pain was so intense that he screamed repeatedly, he said -- silent and unheard because of his ventilator -- as nurses scrubbed his scorched body and doctors tried one surgery after another. One of the last survivors released from the hospital, he was warned that his lungs had come to resemble those of a 55-year-old lifelong smoker. He was just 29, an all-American soccer player who had run the Marine Corps marathon and was an avid athlete.

"It was incredibly hard for both of us to hear," Shaeffer said. He and Blanca, who had been his sweetheart at the Naval Academy and who was also a Navy lieutenant, were just starting their lives. In the fall of 2001, they were planning to start a family. Now Shaeffer was not sure what kind of father he would be.

Barely able to bend his elbows or fingers, he could not pick up or hold a baby. The nerve endings in his right hand were damaged. He had trouble stooping to his knees and wondered how he would ever be able to play blocks or ball with a child.

"My confidence was shaken about fatherhood," he said.

With months of physical therapy, Shaeffer recovered some of his range of movement and began to take chances. In April 2002, he went back in the Pentagon. A month later, he and Blanca flew to Paris, where they had become engaged in 1994.

"It's a miracle that I'm alive and it's a miracle I'm not more disfigured than I am," he said.

His emotional low point came unexpectedly, in August 2002, when he dropped Blanca off at work and was alone in Washington for the first time. He was suddenly overcome by the thought of further terrorist acts. He had a panic attack -- sweating, sobbing, breathing heavily.

Still, in a year of striking changes, he regained use of his hands and elbows and found a new work life.

It started with his idea in November 2002 to try to be part of the White House signing ceremony for the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security.

Three months and many conversations later, he landed a job as a staff member for the so-called 9/11 Commission, which has set out to learn every lesson of the terrorist attacks.

"I feel very driven and passionate about the work of the commission," he said.

The Sept. 11 attacks, he says, inalterably changed his course but also took the lives of his friends. In the Navy Command Center, where he worked, 29 people were killed. On every e-mail he has sent in the last year, Shaeffer ends with the quotation "Never forget."

Not long before he resumed a career, his family life also moved ahead.

Last December, he and Blanca learned she was pregnant -- and due Sept. 6, 2003. For a time, Shaeffer wondered how he would feel if his child was born slightly late, on another Sept. 11.

He decided it would be a sign of how far the family had come.

The baby, Sophia Bella, surprised everyone, arriving on Aug. 17. "Anytime a precious new being comes into the world, it's miraculous," he said. "In our case, with all that we've endured, it's even more so. Blanca and I look at little Sophia, and she's our miracle baby."

Today they will bring the infant on her first big venture into the outside world, to two remembrances of Sept. 11, 2001.

'I Feel Blessed'

When Juan Cruz-Santiago went home, after nearly three months in the hospital, he could not see the big American flag that his neighbors had hung on his red-brick colonial in Woodbridge. He relied on his daughter's description.

Cruz was returning to a world without magazines or television or gardening or afternoon walks. His eyes had suffered some of the worst burns that his doctor had ever treated.

"He could not distinguish whether it was myself or my daughter in the room," said Veronica Cruz, his wife.

No one could say how well Cruz, now 53, would heal. At first his days consisted of eating and sleeping and showers and medication and bandage changes -- and very little else.

The hardest part, his wife said, was the uncertainty. "You didn't know where this would lead you," she said. "There were so many unknowns these past two years."

Slowly, after 17 months, the haze started lifting. Last February, Cruz, once an Army sergeant 1st class who started his days with 50 pushups, was able to manage short walks on a treadmill.

In ways he had only hoped for, his vision began to reemerge.

His improved sight is not nearly perfect -- and a corneal transplant is still possible -- but with his glasses and just the right light, he can read: a large-print Reader's Digest, enlarged words on a computer screen, even a newspaper. "It's a huge improvement," he said. "I always had faith that I would be able to see again, but it's been stressful."

In the last six months, he has struggled toward more normalcy with the help of Veronica and his daughters, Melissa, 25, and Marissa, 16. "I'm taking less drugs, and I'm realizing, 'Wow, I was really in bad shape,' " he said.

"I used to be a handsome dude," he joked one recent day, looking at his wife.

Veronica Cruz smiled at him.

Just days earlier, he had endured yet another facial surgery. His body was still a patchwork of skin grafts and burn scars.

"I feel blessed that I'm still alive," he said. "I feel grateful for that. I used to pray before, but now I find myself praying a lot more."

In a career that spanned 19 years at the Pentagon, Cruz had gotten to know many of his employees. Early on, his wife said, Cruz could not bear to hear of the deaths. "Every time I told him, he'd just start crying," she said.

In all, he said, nine people from his office were killed and three were wounded, including Louise Kurtz, who was also badly burned in only her second day on the job. Like Cruz, she is still at home, still recovering.

Recently, Juan Cruz participated in a walk from the Iwo Jima Memorial to the Pentagon with Jose Padro, the husband of his wife's best friend, Diana Padro, who died in the Pentagon attack.

For today's remembrance, the Cruzes plan to go to the wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery with the Padro family. Juan Cruz said he had not been asked to other remembrances, as happened last year, but that they mean more than ever.

"I'm one of the few, blessed, fortunate people that survived that terrible day," he said, "but close to 3,000 people lost their lives, and if we could dedicate a few hours to thinking about them and praying about them, I think we should do that."

He has wondered, he said, about the day's importance to the nation. Sitting beside him, his wife pointed out that part of the American spirit is resilience, which means "an ability to go on, and now the topic is Iraq."

For them, she pointed out, it is different. "We live September 11 every day," she said.

John Yates visits the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial room and looks out the window at the place where American Airlines Flight 77 hit. Luticia Hook says the taped prayers of her 12-year-old grandson, Adonis Perkins, inspired her while she was recovering in the hospital.Hook jokes with nurse Cecelia Talbert at Washington Hospital Center. The Pentagon attack left Hook burned on 45 percent of her body, and the fingers on her left hand were amputated. She is unable to work.During a checkup at Washington Hospital Center, Hook gives her doctor a thumbs-up sign after hearing that she is doing well. At right is her husband, Anthony.Brian Birdwell, center, and his wife, Mel, share a laugh with friends during the Adult Bible Fellowship at Immanuel Bible Church in Northern Virginia. Birdwell, who was burned over more than 60 percent of his body, says, "The Lord has been absolutely gracious to allow me to be where I am today." He and his wife have started a faith-based nonprofit group.Birdwell, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, stretches in front of the Pentagon before a run. He has made tremendous progress since Sept. 11, 2001, when he could not even stand.In November 2001, Birdwell showed his cast to a doctor and physical therapist at Washington Hospital Center. He is now back at work at the Pentagon, calling it "a building to be honored."Kevin Shaeffer with daughter Sophia Bella, born Aug. 17. After he was burned, "my confidence was shaken about fatherhood," he says.At right, Juan Cruz-Santiago and his wife, Veronica, walk in their Woodbridge neighborhood. His eyes were severely burned in the attack, but he has regained some of his vision. Above, Cruz in March 2002.At left, the Pentagon after the 2001 attack. At right, the reconstructed building one year later.