Naval Officer After Attacks on Pentagon: 'I'm Alive, I Made It'


Story Number: NNS020424-01Release Date: 4/24/2002 10:20:00 AM
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By Scott D. Hallford, NAS Pensacola Public Affairs

NAS PENSACOLA, Fla. (NNS) -- It started off as a normal Tuesday morning. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Morning meetings were over and Navy Lt. Kevin Shaeffer was back in his office.

But the day would change for Shaeffer just like for so many others, forever.

Evil has a name and it has a face. It manifested itself for the 29-year-old Pittsburgh native Sept. 11, 2001, while he was working in the Navy Command Center at the Pentagon. The center is manned 24 hours a day by 40-50 people.

One of its missions consists of a watch team that monitors news events around the world. "The command center is there for the senior leadership of the Navy to always know what is going on with any units in the Navy," said Shaeffer.

"We quickly knew what was going on in New York City after the first plane hit the first tower. We were watching big-screen TVs and stood up a watch team to start logging events and tracking things for the Navy.

"And then we saw the second plane hit and knew it wasn't an accident. As things began to settle down I was standing at my desk with four office mates in our cubicle," he said.

American Airlines Flight 77 was en route to the Pentagon. The hijacked plane soon knifed into the building spewing jet fuel and igniting rolling flames.

"Our space was hit. I recall the space being engulfed in flames, the blast effects completely destroying everything around me and the ceiling collapsing. "I was immediately blown forward and knew that I was on fire. My head was ablaze and I knew I had to put myself out.

"I stood up in the destroyed space. It was dark. There were a lot of unpleasant sounds of people in tremendous pain around me.

"I called out for help to see if anyone could answer. That was very eerie because no one could," he said. He would only find out later that no one else in his office survived.

"I thought of my wife, Blanca, immediately and just told myself, audibly, 'I have to keep moving.'"

Risking electrocution from downed live wires, Shaeffer crawled over and around debris making his way through a hole in the wall. "I was able to escape out into one of the inner corridors of the Pentagon.

"I needed attention and was quickly pounced on by Army Sgt. First Class Steve Workman. I didn't know him at the time and didn't even know he was in the Army at the time. All he had on was a T-shirt and his uniform slacks.

Workman moved debris and with the help of others, got Shaeffer outside.

"There were triage units beginning to be set up, but they knew I was in such grave condition they didn't bother with triage and basically intercepted what was probably the first ambulance that arrived," he said.

"Sgt. Workman actually jumped in the ambulance with me and was talking to me keeping me awake and alert.

"I didn't find out until later why he was wearing only a T-shirt. He had taken a command role guiding people to safety. He decided he needed to go back into some of the burning spaces to make sure no one else needed help. He ran into a men's room, took off his uniform top and doused it with water to go over his head to go back in the burning spaces.

After arriving at Walter Reed Hospital's emergency room, he heard one of about a dozen nurses assess that he was burned over 50 percent of his body and had perhaps a 50/50 chance of living.

"I grabbed that nurse and pulled her in saying, "No, you don't understand. I'm alive. I survived. I'm going to live. And she said, 'Yes, of course you are.'"

The last thing Shaeffer remembers from Sept. 11 was difficulty in having his wedding band and Naval Academy class ring taken off. "I heard someone call for ringcutters and told them to stop. I managed to get my rings off and handed them to one of the doctors and said, 'OK, now you can do whatever you need to do to me." He immediately went into his first surgery.

In addition to second- and third-degree burns on his hands, arms, head and back, Shaeffer also suffered lung damage from smoke and jet fuel inhalation.

Two days after the attacks President Bush and his wife, Laura, visited some of the survivors. Sgt. 1st Class Workman was at the hospital when the first couple came by.

"President Bush talked to me a little, but I was really under because of the pain medication," Shaeffer said. "The president made the remark if there was anything he could do for me or my family to please let him know. I don't know why he (Workman) did it, but he told the president I would like to play golf with him when I was fit and able to.

"The president said, 'Sure, you're on. When you're fit and ready, you've got a date.'"

Discharged after about three months in intensive care, Shaeffer still wears an elastic burn garment that helps protect his skin and controls scarring.

Now medically retired, Shaeffer and his wife, residents of Fredricksburg, Va., were in Pensacola two weeks ago for a local U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association function.

He will be going through rehabilitation for burns and scarring for up to two years. The lung damage recovery will be much longer. But he hopes sometime later this year to be well enough to pick up his clubs and have that round of golf with the president.

 
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