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10 Years On

It was about 4:30 or 4:45 on a Tuesday morning.  Irish Woman and I were sound asleep when my phone rang.  I didn’t get to it in time, so it flipped over to voicemail just as my hand hit it.  Clearing my head and vision, I saw that my ex had called.  “What could she possibly want at this hour?” was the only thought in my head as I hit the redial button.  After a few rings, it picked up, but it wasn’t my ex on the line.

“Hello?” said a deep male voice.

“Yes?  This is my ex-wife’s phone, and she called me.  Who is this?”  I answered.

“Sir, I’m XXXX.  I’m an EMT with the Zoneton fire department, and I just took this phone from my patient.”

I was immediately wide awake.

“What’s going on?”  I asked.  In the background, I recognized the voice of my ex yelling and arguing with someone.  Irish Woman noticed the change in the tone of my voice, and sat up, giving me a questioning look.

“Sir, it appears that your wife and the children have been hurt in a fire.  She asked us to call you and tell you what is going on.”

“My God.  Where are the children?  How are they?”

“They just left here in another ambulance.  They’re on their way to the burn unit at Kosair.  We are just getting rolling with their mother.  She’s going to University.”

In the background, I heard my ex yelling even louder, demanding that the children be brought to University Hospital to be with her.

I thanked the gentleman and ended the call, promising to be at Kosair Children’s Hospital as soon as I could.  I explained what was going on to Irish Woman, who was already getting dressed.  She’d heard me use the words “children” and “My God”, and was already two steps ahead of me.  On our way out, I grabbed two stuffed animals for the kids, a Twinkle doll that Girlie Bear loved to sleep with and a Beanie Baby that Little Bear had named “Daniel Striped Tiger”.

I honestly can’t remember much about the drive to the hospital.  As we got to the emergency department at the children’s hospital downtown, there was already someone waiting to escort us back to the kids.  They were in a treatment room that was as close to chaos as you can have and still see people doing their job.  Girlie Bear was being taken care of by two nurses, while it took two nurses just to hold Little Bear down.   She was pretty much in shock, and hardly flinched as they worked on her, while he was thrashing from the pain and fear.  I motioned Irish Woman over to Girlie Bear, knowing that she’d be the best at soothing her.  I headed over to the head of the bed that Little Bear was lying on, and tried to help hold him steady and calm him down.

As I talked to my son and tried to calm him, I glanced down at the foot of the bed.  Nurses were soaking gauze in cold saline, then applying it to the burned soles of his feet.  As I watched, one of them gently peeled back an old set of gauze, taking with it patches of soot and skin.  Each application of cold gauze brought Little Bear a small moment of peace, but only for a moment before he cried out from the pain.

Irish Woman and I swapped places several times.  The kids were still being worked on, but were clutching those stuffed animals that I brought and the teddy bears that the hospital chaplain had brought down with her*.  As hard as the shrieks from Little Bear were to get through, the silence and far off expression on Girlie Bear’s face were worse.

After about an hour, my ex’s mother came in.  She hadn’t been over to the other hospital to check on her daughter, but wanted to see what was going on with the kids.  I guess you can say that the point in our relationship where we went from “I leave you alone, you leave me alone” to outright hostility was the moment when, as I came out into the hall to let her know how things were going, she demanded that I check the kids out of the children’s hospital and send them to University to be with their mother, and also demanded that the children be sent home with her once they were discharged.  I am truly proud of myself in that I didn’t even raise my voice as I replied that the kids were staying exactly where they were, that we would discuss what would happen after they were discharged once I had some idea how long they would be in the hospital, and that since she didn’t have anything better to do for the kids than to harass me, then maybe she should find her way over to University and take care of her daughter.  I later found out that she had taken the opportunity of Irish Woman slipping out to make a couple of phone calls to try to pressure Irish Woman into getting me to do as she wanted.

Eventually, what could be done for the kids in the emergency room had been done, and they were transferred up to the burn ward.  By then, the kids were extremely medicated.  Girlie Bear went to sleep on the way up, and didn’t wake up fully for three days.  Little Bear surprised us by getting hyper.  He was stoned, and wasn’t making a heck of a lot of sense when he tried to talk to us, but he was bouncing off the bed rails.  We settled into our room, where we would spend the next few weeks trying to entertain the kids between dressing changes and debridements.

Both children had second and third degree burns on the entire soles of both feet, with more damage between their toes.  I had one doctor remark that it was a good thing that we allowed them to run around barefoot so much, as the callouses had provided at least a little protection for the softer skin underneath.  In addition to that, Little Bear had a bad second degree burn on his arm, and both kids had small dime sized burns on their faces and shoulders.

What had happened was that one of the wall sockets in my ex’s living room had shorted out during the night, and the fire had burned its way up inside the wall to the attic space of her apartment building and spread laterally from there.  Basically, the building burned from the roof down.  My ex lived on the top  floor of the building, and it was one of those where the stairs and landing are on the outside of the building.  This complex had metal mesh stairs and landings encased in plastic, and to get to ground level, you had to walk down about 50 feet of landing to then go down six flights of steps.

Someone saw the fire from the street and immediately started shouting and beating on doors.  My ex heard someone pounding at the door, realized that the house was on fire,  grabbed the kids, and ran.  The small burns on the childrens’ heads and shoulders came from pieces of burning ceiling falling onto them as they made their way out.  By the time my ex got out of her apartment and out onto the landing, the plastic that the metal landing and stairs were covered in was on fire, and as she ran across it, it burned her feet.  Her legs came out from under her, and she dropped both kids onto the hot metal and plastic.  This caused the burns on the bottoms of their feet.  Her fall burned not only her feet, but also the length of both legs up to the small of her back and on her arms.  The burn on Little Bear’s arm probably happened when he was trying to get down the stairs to safety and rubbed up against the railing.

Luckily, they were the only people hurt in the fire.  The fire marshal later found that the cause of the fire was someone putting improper fixtures on aluminum wiring.  I didn’t know this at the time, but a lot of the buildings built in the 1970’s or so have aluminum wiring due to the difference in cost, and in this particular instance whoever had refurbished the building hadn’t used the proper, but more expensive, light fixtures and power outlets that are necessary with aluminum.  The fire marshal, along with the fire chief and the principal of the kids’ school, came by that afternoon to check on them, and I have rarely seen anyone as angry as that fire marshal was.  He didn’t give me any details then, but I later read his report, and found that the same complex had had an electrical fire a year or so before, but no-one had corrected the issue.

That night, once Irish Woman had gone home and the kids were in a deep, opiate-induced sleep, I fell apart.  I’d kept it together for 18 hours, and once the lights were out and everyone else was either unconscious or gone, it was safe.  I pretty much rolled up in a ball and cried for quite some time.  The silent prayers I’d been saying all day were whispered.  I thanked whoever was listening for the lives of my kids, for the men and women who had saved them, and for the hospital that was only a few minutes away.  I prayed for their recovery and for the strength that both Irish Woman and I would need to help the kids get through this.  I eventually drifted off into what was both a deep sleep of exhaustion, but also one of the lightest sleeps I’ve ever had.  I woke up rested in the morning, but I also woke up several times in the night at the slightest change in their sounds.

We spent the next month in that little room.  Girlie Bear came around to being herself after a few days, and outside of when he was getting worked on by the nurses, Little Bear was his normal, chipper self.  We’d eat, read books, color, watch movies, and wait for the next round of wound cleaning, and new bandages.  Through all this, Irish Woman was my rock.  We weren’t married yet, and truth be told up until that morning I’d have given even odds on us staying together for the long haul.  The way that she was there for my kids and me through that whole ordeal showed me just how special she was and how undeservedly fortunate I was to have her as a friend and love.

We got through it.  After a few weeks, the kids went home to our house, and we continued their care there.  I got pretty good at changing dressings and spreading silvadene onto their burns.  The kids were restricted from walking and sunlight, and had been cooped up in the hospital for weeks.  We did what we could to entertain them, and having our libraries of books and movies available was a godsend.

Eventually, the kids healed.  We had to let them gradually start walking again, but it was another month before they could wear shoes.  Their mother got out of the hospital and stayed with friends until she could get back on her feet.  After a few months, everything was back to normal, or almost so.  The kids both woke up in the night for months, crying and screaming about the fire, and Girlie Bear still has the occasional nightmare.  I guess they’ll always have nocturnal memories bubble up every so often.  Both kids’ burns scarred them pretty badly, but the worst of it is on the bottom of their feet, and they report no long term ill effects there.   Little Bear has a patch on his arm that is the only part of his body that doesn’t turn brown as a nut in the summer, and every so often I’ll notice a couple of the small burns standing out against darker skin.

I look back now and, as I have for 10 years now, realize how lucky we got that morning.  The fire chief was pretty much convinced that, if not for the actions of that random guy on his way to work who saw the fire and ran to help, my children would be dead.  As I drove to the hospital that morning, I was imagining just how bad it was, and I will always be grateful that instead of picking out little coffins for them that week, I picked out several sets of pajamas for them to wear in the hospital.  Instead of two graves to talk to, I have two wonderful children.  Yes, they have lived through some things that no person should, but they’re also vibrant, loving, beautiful young people, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

7 Comments

  1. MaddMedic

     /  June 3, 2013

    Wow…Just…Wow…

  2. I had no idea. You are richly blessed. I am so glad the stranger took action.

  3. Dang DB, I got goosebumps just reading this….Glad everybody is fine.

    • Thanks Bob. We were very lucky and I’ve always been convinced that someone was looking out for us.

  4. Six

     /  June 5, 2013

    A story both horrific and uplifting at the same time. I agree with you DB, your kids had an angel watching over them. Still do if I’m any judge of parents.

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