A wind-whipped blaze forever changed the life of a volunteer firefighter.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service| January 04, 1999 | Rogers, Mary
FORT WORTH, Texas _ Sometimes, just when he’s found some sense of peace, Jamie Cashion catches someone staring at him and he knows that, forever and always, he will be different. For almost half his life, he has lived with the prying eyes, the questions, the uneasiness.
Ask him, and Jamie will tell you that life isn’t about getting a good hand, but about playing a bad one well. He’ll say life is precious, family matters and there’s no time to waste. Life goes on, he’ll say. You must go on, too.
At 31, he likes fast cars and expensive watches, kids, dogs, dancing, old jeans, tennis shoes and people, most of all. He’ll tell you he’s been lucky. He married his childhood sweetheart, runs a successful Fort Worth insurance agency, owns a new 2-story home, enjoys volunteer work and goes to church on Sundays.
He could be the all-American boy next door, the fun-loving class favorite, the guy who seems always to win except for one fateful afternoon almost 15 years ago.
His mother, Pam Harrison, wasn’t worried when she signed the consent forms for Jamie to register as the youngest volunteer fireman in little Joshua, Texas. Her brother had been a firefighter and a policeman, and there was never a concern.
What could happen? She thought Jamie would be safe and he might have been, if the wind hadn’t turned.
The minute the fire signal sounded, an ominous tingle rocketed up his spine, raising the hair on his neck, and he knew that this fire was different from all the rest.
Ignoring the faint alarm ringing somewhere deep inside his head, Jamie rushed to the Joshua Fire Hall, where he joined other volunteer firefighters preparing to fight a ferocious fire that was racing across a rolling grassland west of Crowley, a Fort Worth suburb.
Jamie was 16 that February afternoon in 1984, a happy-go-lucky high school sophomore, the life of the party, a kid with boundless energy and a mile-wide streak of mischief. Before day’s end, he was barely clinging to life, writhing in pain, his face, hands and legs gouged by the flames.
Jamie and his mother have the same brown eyes, the same sense of fun, the same understanding of calamity.
Jamie isn’t old enough to remember the car crash that put his mother in a wheelchair. He was only a toddler then. She was 23, with two little kids and a marriage that was ending. She was alone and driving too fast on a dark road. The curve must have been a surprise. One miscalculation. One error in judgment. A lifetime without useful legs.
After the accident, she cried if a stranger looked at her. She withdrew, she says, sat and watched life rush past, a dizzy kaleidoscope of color and lost opportunity.
She wouldn’t accept her predicament, refused to use her wheelchair. Friends carried her from place to place in their arms.
But Jamie is different, she says. He throws himself at you. He wants to touch you. He wants you to touch him. He’s in your face and smiling, making a joke, demanding attention, affection, too, if he can get it. He chases after life with an enviable verve. She told him not to let it get away
The pain was excruciating, raw and throbbing. Jamie fidgeted and gritted his teeth; his burned hands, excavated to the bone, were swathed and hanging from netting above his hospital bed. The sheet was tented above his cooked legs, and his face – his face was a swollen blob, blackened and bleeding.
Every day, masked attendants hoisted him into a stainless-steel tub brimming with bleach-treated water and scraped the dead tissue from his burns. He screamed and cried and cursed them. He bit and kicked and tried to make them stop.
Every day, his mother tried to comfort him, her voice low and soothing, but Jamie grew more agitated, more demanding, more recalcitrant.
Jamie’s aunt, Mickie Tigner, watched one day as Pam pulled herself up out of the wheelchair and dragged herself onto Jamie’s hospital bed. She crawled closer and closer until she was only inches from her son’s scorched face.
“You thank God for your pain,” she whispered, tears spilling down her face. “I can feel nothing.”
Such powerful admonitions become so common, Jamie can’t remember that particular incident. Mickie says she’ll never forget it.
Other things are burned into Jamie’s memory.
By the time Jamie got to the fire hall that Saturday afternoon, he was pumped; ready to go. His friend Duwayne Capps jumped behind the wheel of truck No. 7724 and Jamie got on the back. Duwayne, 30, was the father of two small children. He liked Jamie’s spunk and had arranged for Jamie to join the volunteer team.
Larry Stephens ran from the feed and veterinary supply store he operated next to the fire hall and offered to drive one of the trucks. Pat Clark drove another.
When they saw the white smoke rising into the winter sky, they knew this fire was like none they’d ever seen. More than a dozen fire departments from all across Johnson and Tarrant counties were racing to the blaze, sirens screaming.
Pushed by a 40-mph wind, the flames roared across 22,000 acres of grassland south of Farm Road 1187 – and then jumped the road. The heat was intense. The trucks coughed and sputtered, choked by the thick smoke.
Jamie stood on the back of the truck, spraying water, but a squirt gun might have been as useful. The 18-foot-tall flames rolled through the high grass like ocean waves. Pat’s truck stalled, and he jumped out and ran. Terrified, Jamie ran, too.
In that instant, the wind shifted.
A wall of fire rolled over the trucks Suddenly, Pat was on fire and running. Somehow, Duwayne got him into the cab.
“I’ll never forget the smell; burned skin, burned hair and the burned-rubber smell of his boots,” Duwayne says now.
Frightened and fighting to keep the sputtering truck moving, Duwayne had no idea that Jamie was lost in the inferno.
Jamie smelled his own flesh burning, felt the flames gouge his skin.
He thought he was dying. “Oh, God. Oh, God, don’t let me die,” he screamed. Let me live, he prayed. Let me live. Don’t take me today. Not today. I’m only 16. For one black moment, there seemed no hope.
“Then I rose up. I rose up out of those flames. It was like a great hand – the hand of God pulled me up out of that fire. I could hear people shouting ‘This way. This way.’ I was running then, and I could see shadowy figures on the other side of the flames.”
He broke through the fire, and Duwayne and another firefighter grabbed him and smothered his burning clothing with their bare hands, but his life had changed forever.
At Huguley Memorial Medical Center in Fort Worth, his frantic mother tried to push past hospital personnel, but only banged her wheelchair into the doorjamb. She tried again and again, calling to Jamie over and over as hospital employees tried to quiet her. Jamie called back, and she knew he was alive, but his words were unintelligible.
Jamie was airlifted to the Parkland Memorial Hospital burn unit in Dallas. For days,his eyes were swollen shut. He communicated by wiggling his toes. Visitors tied on sterile masks and gowns before entering his room. He felt isolated and adrift, worried that something might happen to his family and that he would be left all alone.
He begged his mother to kiss him. Afraid to remove the sterile mask, afraid she would harm him, she refused. But Jamie pleaded all the more. Finally, she relented. She kissed him then, and every day after that.
Jamie was moved to Shriners Burn Institute in Galveston. His father, insurance executive James Cashion chartered a jet for the journey.
Shriners was, for Jamie a life-changing experience. Who could forget the children there? Some had no ears, no feet. Little fingers had been burned away. Faces were twisted into grotesque masks. Any idea that Jamie had about beauty and bravery was challenged. He saw that some people were forced to live a life they hadn’t chosen. He was one of them.
Doctors wanted to amputate his fingers, but his mother wouldn’t allow it. His fingers are misshapen now, twisted by the fire, but useful.
The town of Joshua didn’t forget the wounded firefighters or the one they lost, Larry Stephens, who died a few days after the blaze. Three Crowley firefighters were also burned. At a blood drive, 400 people stood in line to give; there were benefit dances and bake sales. Volunteers waited at the stoplight holding out firefighters’ boots for donations.
When Jamie returned to school, he was something of a celebrity. Everyone knew what had happened. Joshua was like a warm cocoon.
Duwayne went by Jamie’s house, even helped change his bandages, but he didn’t go often. It was too hard to see Jamie that way.
Jamie’s stepfather, Jim Harrison, shouldered most of the responsibility for daily care. Each day, Jim left his job at the convenience store and came home to bathe Jamie’s hands, pull off the dead tissue and re-dress the wounds. Then it was back to work.
Life outside Joshua was harder. To graduate with his class, Jamie had to attend a summer session at a Fort Worth school. As he stood in the registration line, pretty girls stared or looked away. He didn’t know these people. They didn’t know him. He called his mother in tears.
“You’ve got to come and get me,” he demanded. “If you come home today, you’ll have to go back tomorrow,” she said.
She might as well have said “Life goes on, Jamie. You go on, too.”
He can’t remember the exact number of corrective surgeries he endured – between seven and 10 over the next year and a half. Some released his fingers. Some freed scar tissue so he could open his mouth wider. Some improved the appearance of the burns on his face. He was stoic about the results.
“It happened, and nothing’s going to change it”, he said. “I know I have to make the best of what I’ve got. I’m lucky I’ve got a face there.”
Jamie tried not to think about his appearance. He got busy. He volunteered in political campaigns: a sheriff’s race; a senator’s bid for election. Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to the Governor’s Committee on People With Disabilities. He discovered he had a talent for karate (he has just earned his third-degree black belt), and he began teaching karate classes at a Fort Worth recreation center in a tough neighborhood. He has been at it more than six years now. He loves the kids but says he’s not ready for children of his own – not yet, anyway.
Jamie first saw Summer Rich at a ball game. She was in the sixth grade, his cousin’s friend. Summer grew into a blond beauty, a high school cheerleader who could have her pick of beaus.
She picked Jamie. She says Jamie’s scars never bothered her. Theirs was a long off-again, on again courtship that began when she was 14.
Jamie proposed during his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in 1995. He called Summer to the microphone, read a poem he’d written and slipped a ring on her finger. Jamie had ordered more than 300 roses. The waiters arranged bouquets of them in a heart shape on the floor. Jamie and Summer were in the center, dancing slowly to “Unchained Melody.”
They married in September 1996. She was 26. He was 29. Like most young married couples who haven’t established their own traditions, they fret about where they will spend the holidays; his parents’ house or hers. They try to balance time together and time alone.
Jamie’s mom always thought he’d go into politics. So did Duwayne. Jamie laughs, but sometimes sadness veils behind the lively brown eyes.
Occasionally, he thinks about trying plastic surgery again to improve the facial scars. He shrugs. It’s painful. It takes so long to heal. He doesn’t like to be out of the game. “I think at this point, I’ll just keep what I’ve got,” he says. But who knows? Maybe. Someday.
In one fateful afternoon, his whole history changed – but not his spirit. Ask him, and he’ll tell you he grew up fast that day. Ask him, and he’ll say life is precious, family matters and there’s no time to waste. Ask him, and he’ll say life goes on, and you’ve got to hurry after it or it might get away.
PHOTO will be available from KRT Photo Service, 202-=83-6099.
(c) 1998, Fort Worth Star-Telegram www.star-telegram=com
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This story is re-posted as requested from Jamie Cashion.