Updated September 10, 2021 at 2:59 p.m. EDT|Published September 10, 2021 at 6:01 a.m. EDT
At the Pentagon that Tuesday morning, many stopped what they were doing to watch television coverage from New York — the astounding sight of one plane, then another, exploding into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was shocking and surreal.
But they did not have long to dwell on it.
Just minutes later, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 barreled into the west side of the Pentagon. One hundred eighty-four people were killed, along with five hijackers. Scores were injured. Among the casualties were seven men and women with burns that scorched much of their bodies and left them suffering in the intensive-care burn unit of Washington Hospital Center.
One died within days. The others underwent surgery after surgery. They lost patches of hair, whole fingers, parts of ears, swaths of skin.
When they emerged from a blur of agony and treatment, their lives were changed — physically, emotionally, practically — as the nation itself was transformed by the terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 people dead in New York, Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia.
Four of the burn survivors, interviewed by The Washington Postfor this story, have each charted a distinct course, holding up against seizing pain, physical limitations and debilitating trauma. They have anguished. They have celebrated. They have marked 20 years.
70, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Three months after leaving the hospital, John Yates was back at work. No one demanded that he return. No one expected it. But he believed going back was important to the memory of his colleagues who had died, a way of not giving in to the terrorists.
When he first returned to the Pentagon, to his job as a civilian security manager, there were days when he would pull into the parking lot, find a space, turn off the engine — and be stopped by a rising panic. It might be 15 minutes before he could open the car door. It might be 30 minutes.
Once, it took him an hour and a half.
His reckoning with 9/11 is a twisting journey. He remembers being blown through the air and not knowing where he was. The utter darkness. That as he crawled, everything he touched burned him.
The doctor told him the heat of the exploding plane had reached 1,800 degrees.
The physical recovery was excruciating. Yates was severely burned on 35 percent of his body, the skin on his fingers hanging down after he escaped. The worst burns were on his hands and forearms, and — as with other burn patients — skin from unburned parts of his body had to be shaved off and grafted to replace skin that had burned away.
After he finally left the hospital — just before Thanksgiving 2001 — he had to relearn basic parts of daily living — dressing himself, tying shoelaces, cutting the food on his dinner plate. “My physical recovery came in stages,” he said.
Yates’s civiliancareer at the Pentagon followed his service in the Army, from 1970 to 1990. Fifty years old on the day of the attack, he is now 70. He sees 9/11 when he looks at his hands and forearms — no longer red and purple, but whiter than they were, with traces of scarring.
“There’s no way to avoid thinking about it, because all I have to do is look at myself,” he said. “But I don’t think about it as much as I did. I don’t dwell on the past.”
Still, the trauma is complex, he acknowledges. There was the day in 2002 when he was quietly working at his desk in a windowed Pentagon office. The sudden roar of a passing jet — a first since the attack — felt overly close.
“It just reverberated and it came from behind me, and I became physically ill,” he said.
Yates thinks of another time, in 2011, when suddenly, while he was in a different office, he watched as the walls and floor — and a soda on his desk — trembled.
“Evacuate!” he yelled to his co-workers. “Evacuate! Evacuate!”
He later learned that the rumbling was produced by a rare earthquake in the region. With a magnitude of 5.8, it was the strongest east of the Rockies since 1944.
Some of the deepest questions Yates has faced are still hard to answer, especially one: “I was standing in the middle of five people — why am I here, when they’re not?”
He credits a therapist — and his wife, Ellen — with helping him through the worst. The therapist diagnosed him with PTSD, an idea that he rejected at first, believing it happened only to soldiers at war.
And yet, “I had most of the symptoms,” he said.
Yates worked 15 more years at the Pentagon after the attack, retiring in 2016. He and Ellen, who married in 2000, together count five grandchildren — two more than they had on 9/11. They have moved from Virginia to North Carolina.
For all of the fallout, Sept. 11 does not define him, he said.
“My life is changed, but it’s the same, if that makes sense,” he said. “I have and will always have PTSD. ... I’m the same guy I was then, but kinda, sorta not the same guy. Everybody changes. My belief is that anyone who had a direct experience is changed in some way.”
Nearly every year, he and Ellen attend the Pentagon’s 9/11 remembrance event.
Still, for a very long time, Yates couldn’t bring himself to visit the graves of his co-workers. Twenty-three of them were killed in the attack.
Finally, on Sept. 11, 2017, he and his wife drove to Arlington National Cemetery and found his co-workers’ headstones in Section 64, facing the Pentagon.
Yates went there that day with a pocket filled with quarters, intending to honor tradition: In the military, a penny left on a gravestone meant someone had paid respects. A nickel meant the visitor had attended boot camp with the deceased, and a dime meant they had served together.
Yates placed quarters on his co-workers’ graves — the coin thatshows he was therewhen they died.
Luticia Hook remembers the water — not the flames or the thick smoke or the brutal heat inside the Pentagon. The building’s sprinkler system sprayed around her as she tried to escape. She slipped and struggled.
She pleaded with God for help.
By the time she found daylight, her body was not the same: 45 percent of her skin severely burned and a chunk of flesh missing on her left side. The fingers on her left hand were so damaged they had to be amputated.
But 20 years later, she said, she finds it hard to return to the worst of what she has endured. “The parts I remember are the good parts,” she said. “The good lifts me up. The bad I try to stay away from.”
For Hook — most call her “Tick” — this was her way even earlier on. A few years after 9/11, she went so far as to rent space at the Navy Yard in D.C. for a “celebration of life” party. About 150 people came, including some of her fellow ICU patients at the burn center.
“I was happy to be alive,” she said, seated in her daughter’s home in Suitland, Md. “I had to celebrate my life. I didn’t care how much it cost. I wanted to celebrate living.”
By then, Hook had been through extensive physical therapy. She learned to get by with her injured left hand; her surgeon used the remaining bone of her hand tocreate more of a thumb to help her function.
“God knew I was right-handed, so he took my left,” she jokes. She named her thumb “baby girl.”
“You laugh to get to take the pain away,” she says.
For all her spirit, the pain and physical struggle have not gone. In some ways, the struggle is more complicated, as long-term physical consequences of what her body endured on 9/11 meld with the effects of aging or other health issues.
Her legs are swollen and in near-constant pain. Her hands sometimes hurt. Her skin is sensitive to a degree she has never known before.
“It’s gotten to the point now where I can’t stand for nothing to touch my skin,” she said, her voice breaking one recent evening. “It’s painful to know you’re not supposed to be like this.”
“Twenty years is a long time to be in pain,” she said.
Over the years, she worked through obstacles. She wanted to return to her bowling league but could not manage a 12-pound ball. She found a lighter one, which worked for a time. She began swimming after 9/11 — until the chlorine took a toll on her skin.
For five years, she volunteered at Washington Hospital Center, bringing other severely injured burn patients the example of her experience.
She remembers one young man who was angry about all that he could not do because of his injuries.
She sat beside him, in a hospital room that had once been her own — set on being honest and speaking from the heart. When she was a patient in the hospital, she would have liked the same: a former patient who could explain what was happening.
Later, the nurses told her he had started going to physical therapy again. “It just makes you feel so good,” she said.
Through all of it, her family has been at her side, she said. Hook and her husband of 52 years, Anthony, live in Fort Washington, Md., in a one-level rambler.
Despite her own challenges, she remains a caregiver, switching off with other family members to tend to her elderly mother.
Hook says her husband, daughter, Yolanda Perkins, and son, Anthony Jr., always have been at her side — along with her grandson, Adonis Perkins, who was just 10 when everything happened.
On Saturday, Hook will be at the Pentagon’s observance of 9/11. She had been particularly close to her boss, Michael Selves.
She was with him and three others minutes before the attack. Whenever she goes to the Pentagon memorial, she finds the bench bearing his name — one of 184, each a tribute to one of the victims aboard the plane and in the building. She sits and talks to him.
Louise Rogers lives 420 miles from the Pentagon, in a small city with a big name in Upstate New York. Her home is not far from a lake, and is spacious and well-decorated in a kind of country chic, with dozens of pineapple-adorned objects.
It’s a long way from the life she had two decades ago.
She was 49 then, a civilian working for the Army on the second day of a dream job at the Pentagon. She had walked in that morning wearing heels and a polka-dot dress, with a pearl necklace, carrying a Coach handbag.
Rogers had served in the Air Force a year before leaving when she became pregnant. She raised two children with her military husband and finished college. By the time the Pentagon was hit, she was an accountant, enjoying the same field her father had.
“I love numbers,” she says.
On 9/11, she was at a fax machine when her world blew apart. Somehow, she climbed onto a table andout a window that had been knocked away by the crashing force of the Boeing 757 jetliner. She remembers that the windowglass was unbroken.
She found her way outside to a crowd of Pentagon workers who had exited the building.
“I think I’m hurt,” she finally told a passing emergency worker.
He sized her up.
“Oh yeah, lady. Lay down,” he said.
Twenty years later, this picture in her mind is clear. She finds a certain humor in it, since she may be the most severely injured person at the Pentagon to survive the attack.
“They didn’t think I’d survive, but I did,” she reflects.
Rogers divorced several years after 9/11, moving to New York to be near her daughter, Corey. Other family members, too, are not far away. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren come over. She keeps a toy box in a basement playroom.
Her dog, Millie, a Yorkie-Bichon mix, is a devoted friend. In the mornings, Rogers hears the clicking of Millie’s nails on the floor — just before the dog crawls under the covers at the foot of her bed and tunnels up to her face.
Sept. 11 is not on her mind very much. She does not attend Pentagon anniversary services.
“It used to really upset me,” she said. “But I’m looking forward, not backward.”
Doctors formed a wedge in the remaining bone of her hands to create thumbs that havehelped her function. Using a strap, she can hold a fork or spoon to eat dinner, or brush her teeth or comb her hair. She uses her phone or a pen without the strap.
What she misses is accounting. She wishes she could work. She also used to sew and crochet and do crafts.
“My hands don’t cooperate as much as they used to,” she said.
Rogers is independent by nature butnow looks to her daughter and a longtime caregiver, Chasity LaPointe, for day-to-day company and certain needs. She has had some rough patches.
There was a bout with colon cancer and a lengthy regimen of chemotherapy. Then a broken ankle. She has cut back on medications, but the pain in her hands has never really subsided.
Rogers’s short-term memory falters at times. During an interview,she repeats certain details about 9/11 — the fact that the window glass was not broken, the exchange she had with the emergency worker. Her doctors say it is mostly age.
“It hasn’t been the easiest, but we proceed, and we just stay positive, and that’s all we can do,” said her daughter, Corey.
Rogers rereads her favorite author, Nora Roberts, and catches television shows here and there — “NCIS,” and “JAG.” She has a flair for home decorating.
She took heart when a U.S. Special Operations unit killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“I was glad they got him,” she said. “Son of a b----.” She chuckles at her language. “I don’t mince my words.”
As she talks, the leftovers of her birthday cake are waiting on the kitchen counter. She just turned 69. For all of her limitations, she says, “life is good, and I’m glad I’m here.”
59, Granbury, Tex.
Brian Birdwell, a lieutenant colonel in the Army on 9/11, was pretty sure he would not survive his injuries at the Pentagon. He was a few steps outside a restroom when he was jolted off his feet and the world went dark. The next thing he knew, he was on fire.
He could taste jet fuel.
When he finally collapsed after several efforts to get away, he recalls that he was under one of the building’s fire sprinklers. There, he slowly realized he was not on fire any longer and could see light down a corridor.
As he made his way, others in the Pentagon found him.
His burns were severe and covered 60 percent of his body. His lungs were damaged. He underwent attack-related surgery 39 times.
Twenty years later, he lives in Granbury, Tex., where a framed photo of him in his hospital room hangs on the wall of his home office. His head is wrapped in gauze, his arms and hands are fully bandaged, and he is wearing a hospital gown. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki stands at his bedside, there to present him with a Purple Heart. He pinned the medal to Birdwell’s pillow.
Birdwell has told many parts of his story before and says outright that he is not seeking sympathy. But his voice still breaks as he recalls believing that he was about to die and would no longer be with his wife, Mel, and then-12-year-old son, Matthew.
On 9/11, he insisted that his wedding ring not be cut off because he did not want it given to his wife in pieces. It was removed in one piece, taking charred flesh with it. He recalls a visit by his son that he thought would be their last.
“I wanted to see him because I wanted to say goodbye, because after that visit, in my mind, I told the Lord, ‘Okay, okay, I’m done,’ ” he said. “‘It’s finished. Let’s finish what the terrorists started and get me out of this agony.’”
“Even 20 years later, those scars are pretty deep,” he said.
Like other survivors, Birdwell said he wanted to live the best life he could after 9/11. He and his wife wrote a book together about their family’s journey and founded a nonprofit organization, Face the Fire Ministries, to support critically injured burn patients and the military’s wounded.
They traveled to burn centers, Brian working with patients and Mel working with caregivers as they operated the nonprofit from 2004 to 2017.
The family relocated to Texas, and in 2010 Birdwell, a Republican, ran for an open state Senate seat and won — and has since been reelected. He is about to turn 60. He celebrated his 40th birthday in the burn center after 9/11.
His son, Matthew, is 32, married and the father of two children.
Birdwell went back to work at his office in the Pentagon six months after the attack and retired in 2004.He lost two close colleagues that day — Cheryle Sincock and Sandra Taylor — who had been standing next to him in an office just before he walked to the restroom.
“There’s never been a survivor’s guilt, but there’s always been, ‘What’s the survivors’ charge?’” he said. “Their remains were carried out. . .. That sense of what are my duties and responsibilities since I have survived?”
He said he has not suffered the kind of emotional and psychological fallout with which some survivors contend. When he had nightmares in the early going, he looked to his pastor for help. His wife and his faith, he said, are what got him through.
There have been physical changes in him since 9/11: His skin is very fragile, and — as his wife describes it — he has new “funny bones” that are painful when bumped. He cannot grip doorknobs or pick up coins. He doesn’t use his hands to test the heat of water because he can’t feel it anymore.
“I’m aging normally, although things tend to be happening a little sooner in the time frame than I would want,” he said. “But I live a very good quality of life — with the daily reminder of the price of our national freedom and the reminder of what my limitations are. But also those scars are a reminder of the Lord’s grace.”
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Photos by Amanda Voisard. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley. Design by J.C. Reed.