Monday, September 11, 2006

The Washington Times, in a special section commemorating the first anniversary of September 11, profiled three men and two women who survived the attack on the Pentagon. They agreed to update their stories for a series, After the Fire, this week marking the fifth anniversary.

First of five parts

As fellow Americans today remember September 11, 2001, with tributes, prayers and other commemorations, Louise Kurtz will try her best to forget that terrible day ever happened.

“I usually try to ignore 9/11. It stirs memories and emotions in me that I’ve been trying to forget,” says Ms. Kurtz, who sustained severe burns — some fourth-degree — on 70 percent of her body during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. “I just want to move on.”

But as much as Ms. Kurtz tries, she can’t blot out the memory of seeing and trying to help another woman who was on fire, and then looking down at her own swelling, blistering and reddening arms.

Or vanquish the memory of seeing pieces of the Pentagon crumbling around her.

She can’t easily forget the 48 surgeries that followed, a year of wearing a “burn suit,” the loss of her fingers and severe damage to her face and arms.

“My legs did OK,” she says, pulling up black stretch pants to reveal some smooth skin and plenty of square indentations — skin used for grafting.

A year after terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, Ms. Kurtz told The Washington Times about her injuries and recovery. She had undergone 39 surgeries by then and been fitted for prosthetic ears that would sport gold earrings.

Now, at the fifth anniversary, the Spotsylvania resident says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Instead, Ms. Kurtz counts herself fortunate that she made it out alive that sunny September morning, her second day of working as an accountant for the budget office of the Department of the Army.

Two other persons in her office got out and lived, she says. The remaining 50 or so, including the woman she saw on fire, didn’t.

When the airliner plowed into the Pentagon, Ms. Kurtz was standing at a machine faxing personnel papers.

“It was dark,” she says. “I had grit in my teeth. There was debris everywhere. … I smelled the jet fuel, and I knew what had happened.”

Everything around her appeared to be gone. Amazingly, she remained standing.

For a moment, she wondered if she was dying and about to join her father, who had died a few years earlier.

“I remember looking around for my father, but I didn’t see him,” she says. “I made a conscious choice at that time to get out, because this was not the way I was supposed to die.”

‘No room for hatred’

Ms. Kurtz had so much for which to live. Her marriage to Michael Kurtz was in its 30th year, its best year, and her relationships with her two children and two grandchildren were strong and loving, she says.

She climbed out of a shattered window from the ground-floor office. A police officer told her to sit down and wait in his car. She says she didn’t realize the extent of her injuries.

“I was wondering what the fuss was about. I didn’t think I was that badly off.”

Ms. Kurtz was taken to Washington Hospital Center, where she would spend weeks being treated for and recovering from her severe burn wounds. Her ears fell off. Surgeons had to amputate her fingers.

Her husband was by her side through it all.

“It’s not the love story it was five years ago,” she says, her eyes welling with tears.

She traps a Kleenex between what is left of her hands and uses it to dab her eyes and cheeks.

In the years after September 11, the marriage crumbled. The Kurtzes separated.

But although she cries often — if not for long — about the separation and about her traumatized body, Ms. Kurtz, who turned 54 on Aug. 13, does not wish to dwell on what she calls “life’s obstacles.”

“I’m not buried in self-pity, because there is no point in it,” she says, leaning back in an elegant armchair in her living room. Curled on her lap rests Maggie, one of her miniature pinschers.

“I hated [the terrorists] for about two minutes. But there just is no room for hatred in my life.”

Adds Monica Youngblood, the certified nursing assistant who helps Ms. Kurtz five days a week: “I think she wants to stay focused on her little corner of the world.”

‘She’s amazing’

Lousie Kurtz remains the matriarch of her family. Her two children, Corey Shaver, 34, and Michael Kurtz Jr., 31, and two grandchildren, Brittany, 18, and Tyler, 11, turn to her for support, advice and love.

Brittany, who lives in Rome, N.Y., calls on a recent afternoon to talk relationships. A few minutes later, son Michael Jr., who recently moved to Southern California to become a kindergarten teacher, calls to check in.

“She’s always provided stability in my life. … She still does,” Michael Jr. says. “She’s always thinking about others, helping others. What happened to her is never going to stop her from doing that.”

Just as Ms. Kurtz remained standing amid the carnage, an inner strength served her well during her recovery.

Her son says she used to dislike depending on others for anything. She has to now, though, if just a little. But Mrs. Youngblood says Ms. Kurtz needs less and less help every week.

“The one thing she can’t do is put on a fitted sheet,” Mrs. Youngblood says. “But that’s hard for all of us.”

Yet, Ms. Kurtz has relearned much. She is a woman craving a return to normal.

She cooks with a crockpot. She dresses herself. She grabs and lifts by squeezing the thumb joint of her right hand against the base of what had been the index finger. She uses bamboo tongs to pick up small items, such as a napkin. Her silverware is outfitted with Velcro straps.

She used to be left-handed. Now she signs her name with her right hand, while paying by credit card, for example, because less remains of the left hand. She has retaken and passed her driver’s test, using a special gadget to steer.

Ms. Kurtz says she might undergo more surgeries. She would like to tighten the skin around her right eye, smooth out the skin on her neck and expand the skin on her arms so she can extend them fully.

But the bulk of the operations, therapy and other recovery is finished, and she has had to adjust to the possibilities and limitations of her new body.

“She’s amazing. I don’t really do much,” Mrs. Youngblood says. “I’m more of a cheerleader than anything else.”

Ms. Kurtz lives in a plus-sized house in Spotsylvania in which she and her husband had planned to spend the rest of their lives.

Aside from weekly doctor appointments, cooking and cleaning and other daily routines, she and Mrs. Youngblood try to include fun activities. They enjoy going to lunch at Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe or the Cracker Barrel at nearby Central Park shopping center.

‘Been there, done that’

Ms. Kurtz and Mrs. Youngblood, who jokingly liken themselves to the title characters in the 1991 movie “Thelma and Louise,” go out to see “chick flicks,” such as “Failure to Launch” and “Rumor Has It.”

They recently went to a Faith Hill and Tim McGraw concert in the District.

“We had so much fun. We were really close to the stage and Tim McGraw [Miss Hill’s husband] pointed right at Louise …,” Mrs. Youngblood says.

“And I was looking the other way and missed it, of course,” Ms. Kurtz interjects with a chuckle.

She does that all the time, using self-effacing humor to defuse dark memories and emotions. She jokes, for example, that she has a young face — only four years old — and she makes fun of her sometimes slurred speech: “Come on, spit it out, Louise.”

“Been there, done that,” she says of the various films about September 11, noting she has no interest in seeing them. She once threatened to wear a T-shirt reading, “I got baked at the Pentagon.”

Ms. Kurtz attributes her strength to her Christian faith. She is an Episcopalian.

“It’s part of me and it’s important, but I don’t like talking about politics and religion,” she says. “I don’t want to be offended, and I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Her family is a source of strength, too.

“I live for my kids and my grandkids,” she says. “And Jake and Maggie are great company.” The beloved miniature pinschers have been with her since before September 11.

But Ms. Kurtz admits she wants more out of life. She’s considering a second career as an interior designer. She’s decorated her home to make it cozy, using plenty of Hawaiian patterns and motifs. Clearly, she likes stalky, elegant white and pink orchids.

“She has the ambition and drive and focus, but she gets tired easily,” Michael Kurtz Jr. says. Still, her son stresses, she has the talent and perseverance to make it happen.

Mrs. Youngblood agrees.

“Her spirit never dies,” the nursing assistant says. “She gets out of bed no matter what. She’s a true hero.”

Mrs. Youngblood adds with a chuckle: “One day, I came over and there she was rearranging furniture.”

Ms. Kurtz doesn’t want to speculate too much about the future but acknowledges that the company of a life partner is high on her wish list.

“I have no clue what I’ll be doing in five years. I hope not to be alone,” Ms. Kurtz says, her hazel eyes tearing up.

“I still have the faith that someone is out there,” she says, a hesitant and slightly quivering smile spreading across her face. “Someone who can see past the face to what’s inside.”

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