It was February 5th 2009 that everything changed for me. A 32 foot travel trailer was my temporary home. I had bought it only 8 months previously as a roof to get me through winter until spring when I planned to start building my cabin. It was icy cold at 3,000 feet in the Cascade mountains of Washington, there was a solid snow pack of about 3 feet and a steady temperature of about 25 degrees.
I worked as a landscaper for several different employers, but when the snow is on the ground my work gets thin, and so do my paychecks. I had a 4 wheel drive blazer that could not make it down my quarter mile long driveway, so I had shoveled a parking space out by the main road and packed all my groceries in by sled. On this particular day I had filled a 5 gallon propane tank which I would use for heat as well as cooking, and carried it down through the snow to my cold little house. I was raised in those mountains and was no stranger to natural gas and it’s dangers. Knowing well that a newly hooked up tank leaks a bit of gas as air is pushed from the line, I waited a few minutes before lighting the pilot lights. Not wanting to condense fumes in the small space of the trailer, I opened both the front door and a side window for some cross ventilation. This very likely saved my life. Having absolutely no idea that anything was amiss I began to make my dinner, and let me tell you, it would have been embarrassing to die for a toasted spam sandwich.
I had a small toaster oven located in a cabinet adjacent to the propane stove, and this was what I was using. There is a rubber seal where the propane line plugs into the back of the stove, and this had cracked from the expanding and contracting of changing temperatures, and had begun leaking into the lower shelf of the cabinet. Propane fumes are heavier than air, and will always sink to the lowest point, and my toaster oven was on the second shelf, therefore not in the thickest cloud of fumes. However, having closed the cabinet while cooking, the propane had no place to escape to, and was slowly filling the bottom half of the cabinet and becoming more dense and dangerous as the timer ticked away. When I heard the cheerful “ding” of the toaster I opened the cabinet door, and the door of the toaster. Here I will slow down and describe what happened. When I opened the cabinet door, the breeze swirled the propane fumes gently into an updraft toward the toaster, and when I opened the toaster door those fumes were sucked in. Even though the toaster was off, the heating elements along the bottom were still red hot, and ignited the fumes. Out of the cabinet roared an inferno of blue fire that promptly engulfed me from the waist up.
The smell is what stays with me, and the sound it made like the roar of a beast. When you “smell” fire, you smell not the flames but what they are burning. You smell smoke. But my shocked inhale of breath sent flames searing down my nose and throat, and it smelled like metal, like blood, like death. I was dressed for a Washington winter; two layers of fleece jackets, waist long hair French braided, thick pants with thermals beneath, and a baseball cap on my head. The cap saved the roots of my hair, the jackets saved my torso, but I was wearing no gloves. I was a tower of flame, and had to beat the fire from my eyes as I struggled to find the door. My jacket was a-flame and the bill of my cap was circling the fire back down to my face. Outside was a large pile of snow about six feet high where I had thrown it after shoveling my walkway, and this is what I threw myself into.
I stood there panting like a dog, knowing that I was in shock by the lack of pain and fear. I shut off my propane tank, cut the line, tossed it in the brush, looked at the smoke billowing from the front door and wondered briefly if I should grab anything. A small voice inside of me said simply ‘no’ and I turned to walk up the road. All of this happened very swiftly, in a fog of numbness mixed with a strange mental clarity. My whole body felt like it was pulsing, whomp whomp, in a very physical way that had nothing to do with my heartbeat. Through this fog everything was surreal and weightless.
I lived 5 miles from town, and 40 miles from the nearest hospital. My only hope is that my mother will be home, as she is my only neighbor for miles, and she is four acres away in the snow. The path to the main road was beaten down to about two feet in width, and about 12 inches down in the solid pack of snow. It was icy where half melted puddles had formed, and branches that had been weighted down and frozen into the crust made a maze of familiar territory. It was about 50 feet or so up the road that the shock wore out, and I broke down. The whomping grew to a mighty proportion, and my hands were suddenly the source. They were on fire in such a way I find hard to describe. They blazed out from my body like an explosion, pain shooting up my arms, constricting my chest, clenching my stomach, pushing on the inside of my ears, burning on the inside of my eyes, it was all I could feel, all that I was, I could not breathe or think, lost and insignificant within this firestorm that had become my body.
I do not know how long that moment lasted, but it is one I will never forget. It was an eternity of agony. It was worse than the wall of fire which engulfed me, worse than the frantic and terrified struggle to douse myself, and worse than anything I had ever encountered in my life. I took a huge gasp of air into my lungs, and I did not recognize the sound of it. It was a gulp, a harsh rattle, a completely primitive and instinctive struggle for air. It snapped something in me, immediately brought me to attention, and I suddenly found myself in the middle of all that chaos. Every hair on my body stood on end, every muscle coiled and ready to spring, feet planted, with a complete mental stillness. An awareness with a profound knowledge of self.
I recall thinking very clearly to myself “Wow Kelley Rose, you’re doing a pretty good job, considering. Now just walk up the road.” I was proud of myself for a moment, that I had pulled myself together so well, before realizing that I was whimpering and had not realized it. It was a strange raspy noise, and it reminded me of a wounded animal. It was very embarrassing and weak, but I could not seem to stop it. Every step was careful and studied, determined and stubborn. I locked my eyes upon the snow patch before me and glared at it until my foot appeared there. My legs wanted to collapse, my knees were shaking, and every movement had to be done carefully and consciously. The pain was so overwhelming that every thought or action had to be held firmly, or be carried away in the hurricane of it. I knew if I sat down I would not get up. I knew if I thought about it I would be afraid. I knew all I had to do was one step at a time, inch by inch, like drops of water to form the sea. It was about this time that I looked down to see my hands.
The moon was about half full and very reflective on the banks of snow. When I had come into a small break in the trees I had ample light to examine my injuries. It was a swift glance down, and my knees nearly buckled. Large blisters covered my hands, swelling and distending them to twice their normal size. They were black and red, and one was currently leaking a clear fluid down my thumb. Another chill passed through my body, my stomach flip flopped, and I wrenched my head back up before I could look more. I no longer looked at the ground, but concentrated as far as I could see up the road, and marched for it. I walked like I was lifting weights, like I was moving mountains, like I was marching into battle. With the stubborn determination of someone who has had to suck it up before, I set out to prove to myself that I was worth a damn. I was angry, I do not know why, but it was white hot and just as powerful as the firestorm, and it got me up the last hill.
My mother was home, and I quite calmly knocked on her door and asked for a pan of water for my hands, she started to reach for it reflexively, before something about my stance made her look closer. She gasped as the light from her open front door revealed my face, which was apparently red and swelling quickly, and I had no eyebrows or eyelashes. Of course I had not noticed this in my struggle to deal with my hands, which were clearly worse off than my face.
She immediately grabbed her purse and told me I had to go to the hospital, which was a pretty stupid thing to say, and we began the quarter mile walk to the main road where her truck was parked. When we got to the hospital I told the security guard that had my elbow to grab my wallet for me out of my right front jacket pocket, which of course is when I noticed, in the bright glow of florescence, that the fleece had completely melted onto the layer beneath. My wallet was long gone. I had hair down to my bum, in a braid at the time of the fire, which came off with the jacket. Nearly three feet of half melted french braid plastered into the fabric. They put me in an induced coma with a breathing tube, as I had inhaled the flames and my throat was swelling shut- Which would explain the strange sounds I was making on my assent. They transferred me immediately to Harborview Medical Center, the top burn center in the country.
I was there for eight days, unable to move my hands, and the swelling of my eyes made it very hard to see. I learned so much about myself in that long week. When you see a woman cutting off your dead and blackened flesh with a pair of scissors, it has a way of putting things in perspective. Maybe it was the morphine, maybe it was the oxytocin that came later, but I was in a quiet state of introspection for most of the time.
Lots of people wait for the moment that defines them. They would like to believe themselves capable of facing an emergency with a cool head and rational actions. They wonder just how strong they would be if they were tested, and ponder secretly where their breaking point may be. Well I have seen the depths of me. I now own the unshakeable knowledge of exactly who I am, and what I am capable of, and it is a strength that can never be taken from me. A friend of mine has told me that there is something in my eyes, that there is some indefinable, very subtle aspect in me that I did not have before. She tells me that I still have fire in my eyes, and I believe her.
Have you ever heard that riddle of a question, if your house was on fire and you could only grab one thing, what would it be? Well I had heard that question before as well, and I had replied that it would be my stack of notebooks, of course. Well when the moment came, I did not grab anything at all. I chose myself over my possessions, and now all I own from my previous life is the moonstone around my neck that has been tied there on a piece of leather for the past 7 years.