I’m in the mood for a happier story today … hope you are too!
It was a chance meeting of two politicians at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week, and it went largely unnoticed, lost in the noise and bluster that defined the convention. However, it may just have been the most, if not the only, shining moment of the entire convention.
The two men, Texas State Senator Brian Birdwell and candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana, Rob Maness, would appear to have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are both republicans and both just happened to be attending the convention. Mr. Maness was meeting with former Texas governor Rick Perry, discussing Mr. Maness’ current campaign, when Mr. Perry suggested that he meet with Mr. Birdwell. An aide was dispatched to bring Mr. Birdwell to the meeting.
Upon introducing the two men, Rick Perry, who was aware that Maness had been in the Pentagon on 9/11, said “Rob, I want you to meet somebody. He was in the Pentagon on 9/11, too.” Naturally, a common bond had been formed with those few words, and the men began to share their stories.
In 2001, Birdwell worked for the Army and, on the morning of Sept. 11, was in an office in the Pentagon with two colleagues watching the live footage of the Twin Towers burning. At 9:35 he stepped out to go to the bathroom, telling his co-workers he’d be right back. It was the last time he ever spoke to them.
Less than 10 minutes later, as Birdwell left the bathroom, American Airlines Flight 77 barreled into the side of the building, the nose of the aircraft less than 20 yards from where Birdwell stood. He was engulfed in flames, parts of his polyester Army pants melted to his skin, his arms were skinned, and he collapsed with blood and black soot caked to his charred body. He lay there in the burning hall thinking of his wife and his teenage son and their goodbyes that morning. He tried to accept that he was dying.
Yet, minutes later, he was being carried out of the building and a medic on site quickly hooked him up to an IV. An Air Force officer who was helping the wounded held his leaking IV line and tried to keep him awake. Birdwell was eventually taken to the hospital where he would spend 26 days in intensive care. More than 60 percent of his body was severely burned, and he would have 39 operations during his excruciating recovery, which took about four years.
As Birdwell told his story, Maness recalled that day, remembered holding a leaky IV line, assuring the wounded man that he would be okay, despite the fact that appearances said otherwise. And suddenly he knew that here stood the man he had thought about every day for 15 years. Here stood the man whose fate he had wondered about for so very long. “When I realized that I was looking at the same gentleman, I started to cry and told him I was so grateful that he was still alive. We hugged each other and neither of us could believe that we were talking again. What are the odds?”
Both Maness and Birdwell say they will stay in touch now that they have re-connected. This bond formed in the middle of chaos has strength that most of us will never completely understand, but that we can all appreciate. Both men say not a day has passed that they did not think of the other. Both have given back to the world as a result of their experiences that day. Birdwell started a nonprofit, Face the Fire Ministries, that supports burn victims and wounded service men and women. Maness helped found an advocacy organization to prevent veteran suicides. Out of the rubble of that day have come some amazing stories like this one, and out of the darkness of the convention last week came this one shining moment.