- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

Former Navy Lt. Kevin Shaeffer celebrated a Christmas yesterday in Alexandria that some emergency workers did not think he would see.

Mr. Shaeffer was inside the Navy’s command center on the morning of September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda terrorists flew American Flight 77 square into the Pentagon’s southwest wall. Few inside the center survived. In fact, in a catastrophe that appeared as if it would produce mass numbers of wounded, just seven inside the Pentagon, including Mr. Shaeffer, were critically burned.

Today, after nearly dying from a series of heart attacks, the 31-year-old Naval Academy graduate is on a new mission. He was medically retired from the Navy and joined the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. His focus is the emergency response after planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In a sense, he is studying his own survival.

Mr. Shaeffer tells the story of September 11 with point-by-point precision.

By the time Flight 77 reached the C corridor, the airliner and 64 passengers and crew were a moving ball of fire.

The impact destroyed a lot of offices and 189 lives, 125 inside the building. The Army’s personnel management shop took a direct hit. So did the Navy’s command center, where casualties were the heaviest. The center is a large open facility with lots of cubicles.

Mr. Shaeffer had been weighing a career decision that day. Should he remain in the Navy, or pursue other interests such as the law or politics? He worked two layers away from the impact, protected by the outer E and D rings of steel and concrete fortifications.

Like many at the Pentagon, Mr. Shaeffer was engrossed in the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, due in a few days. He was writing a strategy brief on war fighting and had paused watch television, which showed the burning World Trade Center in New York.

Suddenly, he was in his own race to escape a jet-fuel fire and its scorching heat. It was 9:43 a.m.

“In one second it was a live, bustling space full of a lot of people and the next minute I was standing in my cubicle watching a bank of TV sets, watching New York City and at that point we knew it was a terrorist attack,” Mr. Shaeffer said. “I was literally in the heart of the Pentagon. The largest office building in the world. But in an instant all that changed and the entire space exploded and blew me to the ground. I knew immediately I was on fire. I had to roll and escape the fire. I stood up and could not recognize anything around me.”

The thick smoke hid any escape routes. “I called out. There was no answer. I had to fight my way out or I was going to die in there.” He finally spotted something familiar: a gaping wound where the electronically controlled entrance had been. The ceiling had collapsed. Water pipes were broken and electrical cables were frayed. He feared he would get trapped if he went for the door, so he stayed low, crawling over the rumble and fire.

As he moved deeper inside the Pentagon toward the A and B rings, the inner corridors of the five-sided building, he suddenly saw brilliant rays of sunlight. He had reached what would later be called the “punch-out hole” — the point where the plane’s fireball blew open its last cavern as it rolled through three corridors. That last bit of damage turned out to be Mr. Shaeffer’s savior.

“I stopped and stood and walked through that.” Now, he could see the damage more clearly, to the building and to himself. “I could see the skin on my arms and hands were charred, and the skin was hanging off. I thought of the photograph of that young girl in the Vietnam War who was running down the road, who had been injured by a bomb attack.”

One hundred feet from his former cubicle, Mr. Shaeffer stumbled upon a guardian angel in the form of Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Workman. Sgt. Workman helped him onto an available gurney and pushed him to the parade grounds where ambulances collected the wounded. The sergeant rode with him across the Potomac and through the heavy traffic to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Rock Creek Park.

For such a violent attack, Mr. Shaeffer would learn later, few inside the Pentagon were critically wounded. A team of emergency workers at Walter Reed descended on him. He heard a nurse say that burns covered 50 percent of his body and that his chances of survival stood at 50-50.

“I yelled out and pulled her in close and said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m alive and I’m going to make it.’”

He traveled in and out of consciousness. He wife, Blanca, made it to the hospital by 3 a.m. the next day. By that time, he had been moved to the Washington Hospital Center and its renowned burn unit.

For three months and three days he underwent a series of operations. Doctors had to remove the burned skin from his arms and hands because the human body’s largest organ had turned on Mr. Shaeffer by acting as an ever-tightening tourniquet. Fresh skin from his thigh replaced the discarded layers. Infections tore deep into lungs that had inhaled the fiery jet fuel.

A ventilator did his breathing. “They were pumping black sludge out of [the lungs] for weeks,” he said.

On Oct. 4, he nearly died from two cardiac arrests, each time saved by the electrical shocks of a defibrillator. The inferno had burned 42 percent of his body, his hands, arms, back and face. He slowly improved. He walked, then rode a bike and then jogged.

He returned home to Fredericksburg, Va., to continue physical therapy. For some reason — luck, determination, divine intervention — Mr. Shaeffer had survived a command center where 29 other sailors perished. The week before that Thanksgiving, he watched Congress pass a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.

When lawmakers next turned to creating a national commission to investigate the attacks, Mr. Shaeffer let it be known he would be interested in serving. He was hired as part of a team examining emergency preparedness and the response to September 11.

Mr. Shaeffer moved to Alexandria. In August, he and Blanca, a Navy lieutenant, celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter, and named her Sophia Bella.


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