The instant I stepped inside the burning building, the old fear gripped me. Logically, I knew that there was no real danger—that the fire had been set on purpose as a training exercise, and that firefighters were positioned all around outside, ready to extinguish the blaze at a moment’s notice. But that knowledge melted away to nothing as I watched the ink-black streams of smoke creep up the walls and felt the first terrible waves of heat against my skin. I dropped the fire hose I’d been carrying and ran out of the building.
My long, painful relationship with fire began on a Sunday visit to my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Detroit in 1969, when I was nine years old. There had been an odor of gas in the house for some days, but the men from Gas and Electric hadn’t been able to find a leak. “You girls better go play down in the basement,” Grandma told my five-year-old cousin Kimmie and me. “There’s less of a smell down there.” Little did my grandparents and the repairmen know, the gas leak was actually coming directly from underground.
Kimmie and I decided on hide-and-seek. I was it. I turned my face to a wall near the furnace, closed my eyes, and started counting while Kimmie ran and hid. “24 . . . 23 . . . 22 . . . 21 . . .” Just as I got to three, the furnace exploded.
Smoke, falling debris, and flames were everywhere. Then, out of the chaos, a light appeared—a light that was different from the hot, red flames all around me. It was cool, blue, otherworldly. I staggered toward it. I found myself looking at a hole that the explosion had blown in the side of the house. My clothes and my hair were on fire. Screaming, I scrambled through the hole and out onto the lawn.
The trip to the hospital was a blur. The next thing I knew, I was floating above my hospital bed, totally at peace. Looking down, I saw my own body, wrapped in white bandages. I felt a huge swell of relief that I wasn’t in that body anymore.
I glided up a long, wide flight of stairs. At the top, three angels were standing, bathed in the same blue light that had guided me out of the basement. I don’t know exactly how we communicated, but the message they sent was clear. It wasn’t my time yet. I would have to go back. But whenever things got bad, all I needed to do was close my eyes and think of them. They would always be nearby.
I awakened from my coma three weeks after the fire to discover that I had burns on 50 percent of my body. My face was terribly scarred. I underwent 17 plastic surgeries. At school the other kids taunted me, called me a monster. In fifth grade, a teacher stood me up in front of the class as an example of why kids should never play with matches. My grandparents were consumed with guilt over what had happened. Kimmie escaped the accident with only minor injuries, but she moved away shortly after the fire. We never got to talk about it.
The physical scars weren’t the only ones the fire left behind. As an adult I lived each and every day in fear. I had to force myself to fill my tank at the gas station. At the movies, I’d look away if a fire scene came on screen. The fear attacked me with the same merciless hunger that the flames themselves had.
Through all those years, the only thing that kept me going was the memory of my angels and the promise they’d made. Whenever things got really bad, I would stop what I was doing, close my eyes, and think of them. Remember, I would tell myself, whether I can see them or not, they’re always right here with me. I held on to that promise with all my might.
When I was in my thirties, I got involved helping local kids who were burn victims. I knew these children suffered, like I did, from both inner and outer scars, and that it was often difficult for them to talk about how they felt. Because of what I’d been through, they opened up to me. I also started a summer camp exclusively for kids who’d suffered burns.
I met a local fire chief, and asked him if he knew of some way I might be able to do this.
“Fire is dangerous,” he said. “Your fear and respect are well founded. Don’t try to change that.” For a while I gave up on the idea. Then one day my work with young burn victims happened to take me to a firefighters’ conference in San Jose, Calif.
That’s where I met Bruce. He was a training officer for the San Diego Fire Department. He knew everything there was to know about fire from a fireman’s perspective. But he was interested in learning more about how a fire victim felt. When I told him my story, and about my idea of facing my fear, he was more than just encouraging. He was ready to help me do it.
“I supervise training fires for my crew all the time,” he said. “In fact, there’s one coming up in just a few weeks. I’d like to bring you along.”
The test building was a four-story tower on an isolated tarmac about half an hour inland from San Diego. On the drive there, my fears threatened again to overtake me. I almost turned back, but I gripped the wheel tight and just tried to think of my angels. At the test site Bruce outfitted me in full firefighter’s gear and showed me how to handle the hose. A fire was started in the building’s basement. “Just keep reminding yourself it’s a test,” he said. “You’re going to do just fine.”
How I had wanted to “do just fine” too—for Bruce, for myself, for my angels. But when I reached that top step leading down to the basement and the flames, all the encouragement blew away in an instant. There was nothing left but that terrible, relentless fear. I couldn’t go through with it.
Bruce caught up with me outside. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I tried, I really did. But I just can’t do it.” There really was no way out—no escape for me, ever, from the prison of those memories.
Bruce put his arm around my shoulder. “We’re going to do three more burns today. You’ve got three more chances, if you want them. It’s up to you.”
I sat out on that tarmac for an hour. Slowly I found myself letting go—of my expectations, of my anger, of my fear. I thought back again to the promise my angels had made so long ago. No matter what happened in my life, they would always be there. Always.
By the tower, Bruce was getting the firefighters prepared for the next exercise. I got to my feet and walked over. “Okay,” I said. “I’m ready to try again.”
Armed with my hose, I took one careful, steady step at a time toward the basement stairs. At the top step, the waves of hot, choking air again rolled up at me. But this time I went all the way down to the bottom.
That’s when I saw them—bathed in that same blue light I saw long ago. My three angels. I trained my hose on the fire and sprayed. As the flames fell away, so did the fear that had gripped my heart for so many years.
Out on the tarmac I hugged Bruce as tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. I had made it through the flames and the fear at last. And my angels had been there, just as they’d promised.