TRIAL BY FIRE
by Braelyn Riggs
The first time I ever saw an automatic paper towel dispenser was when I was nine years old. My seven year old sister Jerica and I were standing in a bathroom, gleefully ripping paper towel after paper towel as the dispenser continued to spit them out. The emotions consuming me at the time were overwhelming—we laughed at the abundance of paper towels harder than we had laughed in months, yet I was on the verge of tears and more afraid for the future than I had ever been. What stands out is not necessarily the fascination of the paper towel dispenser, but the fact that I felt so giddy in the midst of the worst period of my life.
The bathroom in question was located in the Grossman Burn Center. It was the first time I had seen Jer since she had been admitted. As a visitor of my sister, I wasn’t allowed in the sterile area for patients only. Children that weren’t hospital patients were not allowed to go back there at all; I guess children specifically are considered too non-sterile. As badly as Jer wanted to show me the room she’d been staying in, I still wasn’t allowed to, so we treasured our time together in the waiting room, even making trips to its bathroom together, which led to finding the paper towel dispenser.
It’s funny how in the midst of a tragedy, certain details suddenly stand out to you. Maybe it’s the brain’s way of processing something outside of the realm of normal daily life: latch onto the details you can understand. Two clear memories stand out to me from the most traumatic event of my childhood. One is the automatic paper towel dispenser in the burn center, and the other is a detail from the event itself—the shirt I was wearing.
There are no pictures of me from that day, so I’m not sure why one of my clearest memories is of what I looked like. But I definitely remember that I was wearing my favorite t-shirt on October 27, 2007. The t-shirt was dark blue, and it had a silver star on the front with words in it that said, “A Star Is Born.” I think I had gotten it at Vacation Bible School the year before. My hair was in two braids, a typical look for fifth-grade Braelyn.
That evening, my mom was sick, so she stayed home to rest while my dad, my sister, and I went to a Halloween party at my neighbor’s house across the cul-de-sac. My neighbors had three sons, one of them my age, one older, and one younger. Most of the party guests were friends of our neighbors and families in the area, so a few of my elementary school friends were there. I spent most of the evening running around and playing with my neighbor and our friend from school. I don’t know where my sister or my dad went for most of the evening.
Soon enough, the main event of the Halloween party began: jack-o’-lantern carving. My friend and I picked a perfect pumpkin and made a jack-o’-lantern together. We took our time tracing an outline of a ghost on the pumpkin and carefully carving it out. I thought it was a lot better than some of the other kids’ pumpkins, so I was confident we had a pretty good chance of winning—until we brought it over to be displayed on the tables with the other thirty-ish jack-o’-lanterns and saw some of the creations the adults had made. Our small ghost pumpkin was suddenly out of the running.
But the true winner wasn’t even out yet; the neighbor’s oldest son kicked the backyard gate open and slowly led a group of men through, carrying a 1st place-quality jack-o’-lantern.
The jack-o’-lantern had a jalapeño pepper in its mouth and a perfect shocked expression, wide eyes and eyebrows raised high. The best part was that the top of his head was on fire, as if the pepper he was eating was so hot, his head had exploded into flames. I remember thinking that one would definitely win.
After my friend and I had finished admiring it, we went back over to the other side of the cul-de-sac again, near my house, to keep playing. I’m not sure how much time passed after that, but I suddenly heard a woman scream. The events of the night that changed my life began.
I jumped a little before I spun around to see what was going on. Looking over toward the neighbors’ house, I saw the table with the jack-o’-lanterns had caught on fire and was quickly spreading over the ground in front of it.
As if they had just started realizing what was going on, everyone around the area began screaming and running away from the flames. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t breathe; the fire was spreading quickly and I could feel the heat all the way from the other side of the cul-de-sac. Though they were tall, the flames were congregated mostly on the ground, which confused me. Can asphalt catch on fire?
My mind was empty of conscious thoughts as I desperately tried to process what was happening. At some point in the chaos, my friend had run away to find her parents and I was left alone. I had no idea where my dad or my sister was. All I could feel was panic.
The next thing I remember is that the fire was somehow out, and I was running toward the neighbors’ house to find my dad. Though the main panic was over, people were still running around, looking for their own family members. What was probably only a minute felt like hours as I tried to find my dad and some sense of normalcy so I could stop panicking.
At the exact right moment, through a clearing in the crowd near the house, I finally spotted him, sitting on the neighbors’ driveway, holding a strangely shaped black bag in his arms.
I ran to him, beginning to feel relieved, until I got closer to him and stopped. At the end of what I thought was a black bag in his arms were pink crocs. My sister’s pink crocs.
It hit me all at once: my dad was holding Jerica in his arms, her body black and burnt beyond recognition. I hadn’t even realized he was holding a human at first, so realizing that it was my sister sent me into something beyond my initial shock. I was hyperventilating and looking around wildly, not sure what to do or how to even feel, until a familiar voice brought me back into reality.
“Get Stacey. Someone get Stacey,” my dad was repeating to the people around him. They were in such shock as well that no one heard him, and I was the only one who understood he was asking for my mom. I now had a task to do, something I could wrap my mind around and try to complete. I don’t even know if he saw that I heard him, or even saw that I was there at all, but without saying anything, I turned and ran back to my house.
Running between my house and the neighbors’ house probably took five seconds, but this was the part of the night that felt the longest to me. The reality had finally set in and I realized I was sobbing as I ran to my house, though I didn’t know when I had started crying.
I ran up the driveway, up the front steps, and burst through the front door and down the hallway to the living room where my mom was lying on the couch. With all the emotion bubbling up inside me, I couldn’t get the words out normally.
“Jerica’s on fire!” I screamed at her, continuing to sob so hard I could barely breathe.
My mom sat up on the couch.
“Braelyn, calm down. I’m sure everything’s okay. Is daddy out there?”
I nodded furiously.
“Then it’ll be okay.” She later told me that as a child, I had a tendency to exaggerate things and blow them way out of proportion, so she thought Jerica had probably stuck her finger in a candle or something.
I still wasn’t able to slow my mind down and explain, and the frustration of not being taken seriously was brewing up, making things worse.
“No!” I screamed at her. “You need to come outside, now!”
My mom got up, taking her time, so I grabbed her hand to drag her behind me and get her out of the house. In the amount of time it had taken to run over and get my mom, my dad had made his way over, so he was sitting on our front steps with Jerica still in his arms as I opened the front door and led my mom out to see what had happened.
Before my mom could even realize what was going on, one of our neighbors told her, “It’s okay, we called 911.”
My mom responded, “How is something okay if you had to call 911?” and then suddenly realized the situation as she took in all the details. She sat down next to my dad, taking my sister into her arms, and I sat next to her, still completely in a state of shock and unsure what to do now that my task was complete.
My mom stayed calm, telling Jerica everything was going to be okay. Neither of them cried, and my dad never did, either. Jerica simply sat in my mom’s lap, not saying anything, listening to my mom and waiting for something to happen.
Sitting next to her, I could finally take a good look at what my sister looked like. All of her visible skin was black, because though not all of it was severely burnt, almost her entire body was at least partially charred. Her hair, which used to be light brown, straight, and medium-length, was almost all gone, except for the matted parts left on her head sticking out in strange directions. All I could think in that moment was that her hair looked like the clown from The Simpsons.
And maybe I kept thinking about her hair in order to distract myself, because her face is hard for me to describe, even now. I didn’t find out until later that her entire face was covered in third degree burns. Underneath the severe charring, some pink and red tones stood out. My childish mind, trying to rationalize and categorize everything, thought it kind of looked like peanut butter and jelly smeared all over her face. Even though by this point I knew it was my sister, I still thought her face looked nothing like her.
After another span of time that felt like hours, the firefighters and paramedics pulled up into the cul-de-sac, lights flashing and sirens still blaring.
I watched in silence as the first responders came over to assess. They first looked in her mouth and up her nose to make sure nothing was damaged so badly that she might stop breathing. Then they inspected the rest of her face and her body.
Jerica had been wearing her favorite purple jacket that day. The men calmly explained to her that they needed to cut it off to check for burns underneath, and it was finally at this moment that she started crying, telling them that it was her favorite jacket and they couldn’t cut it.
My mom calmed her down, explaining why it was necessary, and they took out an orange pair of scissors to cut her clothes off and inspect the burns.
I hadn’t even noticed yet, but Jerica’s hands were burnt just as badly as her face, so they cautiously cut the sleeves and pulled the melted material away from her skin, taking some of the skin off with it in the process.
The next thing I knew, she was being loaded on a stretcher into an ambulance, my mom following close behind, and the emergency vehicles all took off down the street to the hospital. My dad went back inside to get his keys to follow, telling me to stay with the neighbors, as he ran out the door to get in his car and follow the ambulance.
Before I could do anything else, I decided that I needed to process and to calm myself down. I don’t know how I managed to do this as a nine year old, but I walked back inside my house and to my bedroom, laid down on my bed, and tried to slow down my breathing and stop crying.
After I had managed to calm myself down, I got up again and walked back over to my neighbors’ house. Almost everyone had left the party by now, but a few people were still there.
When I walked in, all the moms in the room gave me a hug. I still hadn’t said anything yet, so the adults had all the kids go in one of the boys’ bedrooms to play a board game. I don’t even remember what game we played or anything else that happened that evening, except for the fact that I was tossing a rubber ball back and forth between my hands, and at one point, I finally spoke up to ask, “Who made that pumpkin, anyway?”
The oldest neighbor boy sheepishly raised his hand and said, “Me,” and I threw the ball at him as hard as I could. Then I laughed, as if that made everything okay.
At some point, my mom’s best friend must have arrived to pick me up and to stay with me at my house, because I remember asking her to not sleep in the living room like she was planning, but to sleep on my top bunk instead, because I didn’t want to be alone.
The weeks following the event passed in a blur; they felt like years, but I can’t differentiate any of the specific days. The ambulance had taken Jerica to Los Robles Hospital, but upon seeing her, the doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do for her and immediately sent her to the Grossman Burn Center instead, where she ended up undergoing many skin graft surgeries. She spent weeks in the burn center going through an intense healing procedure; she told me that even just the simplest part, removing and replacing her gauze bandages every day, was excruciating.
At one point, I told Jer she looked like she had burnt peanut butter and jelly on her face, and my mom scolded me for it. Jer wasn’t allowed to look in any mirrors, because everyone thought she wouldn’t be able to handle seeing what she looked like, but when she finally did see her reflection, she took a moment to look at the state of her face and examine her burns, and then exclaimed, “It does look like peanut butter and jelly!” It was then that I knew she was going to be okay.
My mom also told her that because she was going to have to be in the hospital for a while, she couldn’t go trick-or-treating for Halloween. My sister complained and said she wanted to go anyway, even telling my mom, “I already have a costume from this gauze! I can just go as a mummy!” It was then that my mom also knew she would be okay.
Even after her time spent in the burn center, it took almost another year and a half for Jerica to fully recover physically. During that time, she wore a silicone mask that covered her entire face for 23 hours a day, seven days a week—it was allowed to be off for one hour a day total, only when she needed to eat. She also wore special gloves on her hands as the third degree burns there continued to heal, and she was almost never allowed to be in the sun, so she wore a big sunhat and kept a blanket over the car windows when we drove anywhere. Even now, ten years later, though she has healed miraculously and most of her skin looks perfect, she has to be very careful about being in the sun too much. She can’t risk getting a sunburn on her face or hands.
When I told one of my friends from high school that I was going to write a personal essay about my sister’s accident, she asked me, “How is that about you? That’s your sister’s story.” And she’s right, to an extent, because Jerica is the one who experienced the excruciating physical pain of being burned alive, being seconds from death, and surviving through the years it took for her to recover.
I found out afterwards that Jer had simply been observing the burning jack-o’-lantern, about to vote for it, when the sticks holding up the tin foil bowl filled with lighter fluid at the top fell down into the pumpkin, which caused the lighter fluid to splash all over Jerica and immediately set her on fire. She came so close to death because of that lighter fluid—she wouldn’t have been on fire for so long if there wasn’t a flammable substance that had drenched her and kept the flames growing. She wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the bravery of a father at the party who saw what had happened from across the street, and when he noticed no one was doing anything, he ran all the way over to jump on top of her and smother the flames. He also sustained third-degree burns, but his heroic actions saved her life.
The firefighters also told my mom afterwards that if Jer had breathed in while she was on fire, that would have killed her as well. When my mom delicately asked my sister if she had been holding her breath, Jer replied, “No, an angel was holding my nose for me.”
Jerica has definitely been through a traumatic event that altered the course of her life, and it is her story. But the question my friend asked me, “How is that about you?” dredged up the hurt that still exists in me. I told her, “That’s exactly what I want to write about.” How I was alone when I witnessed the entire event, how my parents sped off to the hospital and left me alone again, and how most people don’t consider how witnessing what happened might have traumatized me, too. The idea that this “isn’t my story” was communicated to me for years, and it made me start to internalize grief that I thought I had no right to feel. People continue to tell me this isn’t my story, even though I have come to realize I’m allowed to feel pain over what I went through, too.
The waiting room of the burn center was where I spent most of my time during Jerica’s hospitalization. I still went to school and finished fifth grade, but I spent every day after school at the hospital. Throughout high school and college, my friends have joked that I’m “emotionally constipated,” but in all seriousness, I think this might have been where that originated. As a nine year old, I decided that the best way for me to recover from what had happened would be to throw myself into my work. My parents said it would be okay to miss school for however long I wanted, but I desperately needed to go back to the routine of school. They made me take at least one day off, but then I insisted on returning the next day, less than 48 hours after the accident occurred.
During the time Jer was in the hospital, I made it possible for me to go to school every day, even asking for a ride from my neighbors while there was tension going on between them and my parents. And perhaps the unhealthiest part of me focusing on school only: I denied anything being wrong when people at school asked me about it. I separated the two worlds in my head in order to cope. I went to school in the morning, and nothing was wrong, and then a different Braelyn went to the hospital in the afternoon, where I played with my sister during visiting hours.
Even at such a young age, I wrestled with the idea of how God could be good if my family was going through such pain, and after the accident, I slowly drifted away from my faith. I had grown up in a Christian household, where it was expected that I would also be a Christian, but I struggled with those difficult questions and that anger for a long time, and I didn’t become a Christian until high school, when I finally learned about God’s overwhelming love I do not deserve.
It took almost a year for Jer and I both to be comfortable seeing a flame. I remember watching the movie Ratatouille a couple months after the accident, and being gripped by fear when the chef turned the stove on. It didn’t even matter that the flames were small and entirely contained on the stove. It must have been one of the first times since the accident I had seen flames again, and I was suddenly consumed by the vivid memories of the fire and the feelings of confusion and terror I had felt, only worsened by time. It didn’t help that people tend to be insensitive or naïve, either. Another time, a friend’s parent even put on the movie Bolt for us, completely forgetting the fact that the ending involves the entire building burning down with the girl trapped inside.
I never realized how often people joke about being on fire until I saw it happen, and every joke over the years immediately brought me back to the most terrifying moments of my life. Even the lighthearted jokes often brought tears to my eyes, and I sometimes had to leave a classroom to go calm down in the bathroom. Once, a kid in my 7th grade science class thought a ceramic tile burner was a scale and tried to weigh his hand on it, resulting in his skin immediately melting and ear-piercing screams that threw me right into a worse-than-usual panic attack. It took me much longer to come out of my stunned state that time.
Some people were outright mean about the trauma I had been through, especially in middle school. Some kids thought it was hilarious to surprise me by putting a video of someone on fire in front of my face and then watch my reaction as I was unable to avoid a panic attack. I learned an incredible lesson about forgiveness when my parents refused to sue our neighbors, even when their lawyer told them they could easily win millions of dollars (and Jer’s hospital bills were in the millions). But it’s still hard for me to forgive the kids who did that to me, because I honestly cannot understand what possesses a human to do that to another human.
People don’t tend to consider what I might have gone through as a result of Jer’s accident. I guess that’s understandable, since I, too, felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel pain about it. So no, maybe it’s not my story, but the emotional trauma that resulted certainly is. I struggled for years, and it wasn’t until 2016 that I prayed for God to heal me of my panic attacks. I haven’t had any since October 2016.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever heal completely, but maybe that’s not the goal. It’s still extremely difficult for me when I’m watching a movie or TV show and am surprised with a shot of someone on fire. I’ve cried several times already while writing this, forced to remember the gruesome details I usually try to forget. I still spent October 27th this past year in my bed, unable to do much. But I don’t suffer from panic attacks anymore.
It took me years to reconcile with God, but he was the one who was steadily blessing me even throughout my struggle and my anger at him. The most positive thing to come out of all of this was finding a community more closely knit than most: the burn survivor community. Every year, the Grossman Burn Center hosts a camp a couple of hours north of LA for burn survivors and their families, and every year, it continues to be an incredibly healing experience. While burn survivor kids are used to being bullied at school for looking different, they can come to this camp and feel safe for once.
At every meal, a microphone is passed around, and burn survivors and family members are encouraged to share their stories. The stories of sorrow and healing are moving and impactful in a way that makes everyone cry. We can all relate, and we all deeply feel each other’s pain. This past year, a woman shared that she had received her burns when her husband poured gasoline over her and lit her on fire intentionally. She cried, and we all cried with her, as she shared that though she managed to survive and he was arrested, she had never felt safe again, even in her own home—except for when she came to burn camp. Our community was the only place she had ever felt her constant sense of paranoia slip away.
A few years after my family began attending, the camp added a support group specifically for siblings of burn survivors. The fact that they had even considered adding that support group already meant so much to me, but what really struck me was how the leaders asked us to share our own stories.
I remember asking, “Like, what happened to my sister?”
“No, tell us your story. Maybe that includes what happened to your sister, maybe not.”
The burn survivor community is a group of people that have been brought together through tragedy, yet I continue to find joy within. I disagree when people suggest to me that maybe this is the “reason” why Jer had to go through what she did, but I do agree that it is a positive thing that resulted from it, and I am thankful for that.
This essay would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that when you look at Jer now, you can’t tell that she has been burned. She still has scarring mostly on her neck and hands, but when you look at her face, there is no trace of scarring there. It’s something that can only be explained by a miracle. Even Dr. Grossman himself, who recently passed away, said that he had never seen such miraculous healing in his entire career. Jerica’s story of healing and radiant positivity has been an inspiration to thousands of people, including me. She has quite literally been through the fire and been refined. And, in a way, so have I.
About the Author:
Braelyn Riggs is a 20-year old college student from California. She is the recipient of a 4-year full scholarship to study English at Colorado Christian University. She has been writing since she was young, and has completed two self-published novels. She wrote for The Odyssey Online for about a year, where she also worked primarily as a copyeditor. She will soon be moving to South Korea to teach English after graduation in 2019.”.