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Pentagon burn survivors face the future with hugs and smiles
By Lawrence L. Knutson, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Kevin Shaeffer remembers the moment on Sept. 11 when his head and face were on fire and 29 of his co-workers in the Pentagon's Navy Command Center were dead.
Juan Cruz-Santiago, a Pentagon accountant, was in his office on the first floor in the building's outer ring "right where the plane came through."
Luticia Hook was told on her hospital bed that the nose of the hijacked jet liner had stopped just 5 feet short of her desk. After months of therapy, she recovered her ability to walk and climb stairs and was so relieved she refused to stop walking for hours.
"I was afraid if I stopped I wouldn't be able to walk again," she said. The four others working in the Army information management office that day died.
Like all nine burn survivors who escaped the Pentagon, she expresses gratitude to the doctors and nurses of the Washington Hospital Center burn unit who saved her life and gave her hope.
These are men and women who worked behind fortress walls. When the walls broke and the fire rolled through the Pentagon their survival became part of the calculus of chance.
On Sept. 11, the hijacked airliner tore apart offices bright with flags and children's drawings. It killed 184 people, 125 in the Pentagon and 59 passengers and crew members aboard American Airlines Flight 77. About 63 people were wounded in the attack. The Pentagon's casualty list does not include the five dead terrorists aboard the aircraft.
Over the year that has passed the Pentagon has been repaired. The restoration extends even to the moldings around the windows looking out on the green lawn that a year ago was a rallying point for firefighters and rescue teams.
The giant building's fabric has been toughened with concrete and steel and its systems improved. If the Pentagon's corridors ever again become choked with smoke its floor-level escape markings will glow in the dark.
The human survivors have also gone through repair and rehabilitation. The evidence was visible in nonstop smiles and hugs as they reunited with their doctors and nurses Friday morning and picked up the friendships formed in months of convalescence.
"You're looking great," said one woman to another. "It's been a long haul," said another. Many wore tight, black, elastic body wrappings on their arms and hands and under their clothes to better control still-healing scar tissue.
Their doctors received more hugs than anyone.
Ten badly burned people were taken to the center on Sept. 11. Nine survived. The last to be released went home Dec. 18. All are still receiving medical care.
"If it weren't for the will to survive, to live, to recover, these people would not be in the shape they are in today," said Dr. James Jeng, the burn center's associate director.
Shaeffer, who was serving as a Navy lieutenant on Sept. 11, said he had burns over 42 percent of his body.
"I had ingested jet fuel," he said.
"For weeks at a time I had to survive without skin and I can't tell you how painful that was," he continued. "At the hospital they tell you to rate your pain on a scale of one to 10 and mine was off the charts. The worst day was on Oct. 4 when I had two cardiac arrests and had to be resuscitated from a flat-line condition each time."
He fought off infection and lung damage, but it could have been far worse.
"I was the only survivor in the Navy command center that morning," he said. "I knew I had to use all my will and strength to survive."
But there was more to it than that. He spoke of the sustaining love he received from his wife and family, his religious faith, the skill and determination of the burn center surgeons, and the angels.
Shaeffer asked the audience's indulgence, bent over and switched on a recording of the pop song, "Angels Among Us," by Alabama. He let its lyrics about vanquished fear and answered prayers float over the room. He said it had become his personal anthem when it was played in his room after days in which the only way he could deal with pain was to scream.
"There is a lot of love in this room today," he said. Then he adds:
"I'm a survivor. We are all survivors, not victims and not heroes. The heroes are the doctors and nurses here at the burn center."