I was 15 when I first met Billy Jack. He was working in a grocery shop and a friend and I went in to buy a drink. My friend knew him and introduced us. Billy Jack was 17, had already left school and seemed sophisticated as well as handsome.
The next day he found out where I lived and came round with a giant bunch of roses. I couldn’t resist him from that moment on. We married three years later, when I was 18. Jack was my perfect man – good looking, with a bit of swagger on the outside, but kind and respectful on the inside.
I loved him and was so happy. We were both working hard – I started a beauty salon while Billy Jack went to work on an oil rig six hours from where we lived in West Texas, US. He’d work seven days away, then be back for a week.
It was hard at first, and I missed him when he was away, but we got used to his shift pattern. His new job meant we had a better life. We had a nice home and cars. We were both delighted when I became pregnant two years later, and had a little girl, Carney.
We fell into a routine – a week on and a week off, juggling the salon, his job and our daughter, who was growing up fast. That carried on for years, but it never got any easier to say goodbye.
One day Billy Jack had to get up early to begin the long journey to the rig. I was still in bed, and he kept running back to kiss me and Carney goodbye. “I love you,” he smiled. “I don’t want to go.” I hugged him tight; I hated it when he was away, but he had to leave otherwise he’d be late.
“Get out of here!’’ I said, laughing.
Billy Jack winked, then left. I was so busy, dropping Carney, then six, off at school, and working. I snatched chats with Billy Jack when he was working – this time he was on nights. So when my phone rang on his third day away at midnight, I picked it up expecting to hear his voice. “Hi honey,” I whispered, so as not to wake up Carney, who was sleeping beside me.
But it wasn’t Billy Jack. It was Bob Quick, his drilling partner.
“I am in your driveway, can you let me in?’’ he said, and I sat bolt upright. Fear knotted in my stomach. I’d known Bob, 42, for more than five years. What was he doing here? Was Billy Jack hurt? Or – my head was spinning just thinking of it – was it something worse? I wanted to ask what was wrong, but no words came. My mouth was so dry I could hardly swallow. I dropped the phone and, slipping out of bed quietly, I grabbed my dressing gown.
My hands were shaking so much I fumbled with the cord, trying to tie a knot around my waist. A sense of foreboding pressed down on me, and I kept seeing my mother’s face. My dad had been badly burnt in 1970. A miner, he had been tunnelling when there was a natural gas explosion and he was burnt from the waist up. It was a miracle he had survived.
“I hope you never have to go through that,’’ Mum had once said when she learnt Billy Jack was working in a potentially high-risk area like a rig.
Now her words were ringing in my ears – so much so that I decided to call her right away.
Mum and Dad lived just down the road. Numb, I punched in their number. “Something’s wrong,” I croaked when Mum answered. “Please come.” Then I hurried downstairs, my legs buckling they were trembling so much.
Nerve-wracking journey to hospital
Bob and his wife Peggy were standing on the doorstep, their faces white. “There’s been an explosion,” Bob told me quickly. Billy Jack’s been burnt. We don’t know how bad it is.’’
He didn’t have any details, but he wanted to take me to the hospital in Shreveport Louisiana, which was three hours’ drive away. “Get dressed and let’s go,” he said. On automatic pilot, I found my clothes and got Carney ready to go to my parents.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be all right,’’ Mum said, trying to calm me. “You just go on to the hospital and I’ll take care of Carney.’’
I was numb, as Bob drove. We were silent as I kept willing Billy Jack to be OK. About 30 minutes later, my phone rang. It was a nurse from the burns unit at the hospital.
“Is this A’leta McDaniel?’’ she asked, and terror twisted inside. I didn’t want to answer, didn’t want her to tell me any bad news. But I couldn’t stay silent for ever.
“Yes,’’ I finally said.
“I have your husband here.’’ Relief thudded through me. “Is he OK?’’ I asked. I had a medical background – having trained to be a certified medical assistant, before doing a course in beauty and make-up – and knew about burns. I wanted to know what we were dealing with.
“He’s burnt,’’ she said.
I took a deep breath.
“Tell him we love him and I’m on my way,” I said, steeling myself for what was ahead. It must be really bad for her to say that, I realised. I knew I had to be strong so Billy Jack knew he was going to be OK, so I was composed when we finally arrived at the hospital.
Dr Kevin Sittig, the director of the regional burn centre, was waiting to see us. “Your husband has received third-degree burns on 95 per cent of his body.’’ I bit down on my lip, holding back the tears.
“The nurses are wrapping him up now, and then you can see him,’’ he said. There was no talk of treatment, nothing about surgery, skin grafts, the future. That was because no one expected him to live.
The doctors who had seen Billy Jack gave him little chance of recovering. They were just waiting for him to die. I shook my head.
“He will be OK,” I said and the doctor gave me a kind smile. He didn’t believe me. He thought he knew better, that no one could survive such burns. But he didn’t know my husband. At 183cm and tipping the scales at 110kg, Billy Jack was a trained volunteer firefighter, who was always ready to face anything in life. Including this.
After waiting hours I was eventually led to see my husband. I gasped. Nothing about him looked human. He was covered in white gauze from head to toe and only his eyeballs and mouth were visible. His tongue was enlarged and was hanging out of his mouth. It looked like he weighed about 400kg as his whole body was swollen.
I held back tears as I bent to whisper into his ear. “Hey, we haven’t got time for this,” I said, forcing myself to sound normal. “We need to get you up and out of here. I love you, you are going to be fine. Don’t be scared, don’t worry about anything…’’
I wanted to hold his hand but I couldn’t. He was completely swathed in bandages. “Keep on talking,’’ said a nurse who was hunched over a bank of monitors hooked up to Billy Jack. “His vital signs went up when you spoke to him.’’
But I could not continue for long. My throat grew tight. My voice was choking and I was overcome by emotion. It was too much seeing my big, strong husband lying there helpless, barely hanging on. It broke me. It took all my strength not to break down next to Billy Jack. All I wanted to do was kiss him, but I was scared to hurt him, even though he was in a medically induced coma and on painkillers.
I put my head in my hands, and that’s when I realised I’d been allowed in without wearing a gown or scrubbing up because the doctors didn’t think Billy Jack would last the night. But he did. And the one after that. Doctors were surprised. He was kept on a ventilator and in the coma to help his body recover from the trauma.
Tapped in a fireball
It was only on the third day that the details of the accident were slowly told to me. It was on the third day of his shift – Friday, March 3, 2006, just after 11.30pm. Billy Jack had been working about 27 metres off the rig floor when there was an explosion just below the platform he was standing on. Leaking gas ignited, trapping Billy Jack in a fire that was raging at well over 1,500°C. It lasted for more than 20 seconds before it could be put out.
He tried unsuccessfully to jump – to safety or death – while continuing to beat himself in an effort to extinguish the flames.
His hard hat melted and dripped on to his face and large chunks of burnt skin were falling off his body. Amazingly, he was still conscious when his co-workers reached him. They got him off the rig and into an ambulance. He arrived at the hospital screaming.
Now that Billy Jack had managed to survive 72 hours, doctors realised he had a slim chance and began removing the burned skin from his body and gave him blood transfusions – a total of 80. “Recovery is still unlikely at this point,’’ one of the doctors warned me. “Burn patients have a high risk of pneumonia and septic infections as long as they have open wounds. We are doing what we can.”
But Billy Jack kept holding on. The condition of his vital organs was not known at the time he was admitted but based on his burns the doctors were sure there was lung damage. Ten days after the accident when his chest X-ray was taken, the doctors were in for a shock – he had no internal damage from the burns or from the fire.
Two weeks later the doctors brought him out of an induced coma. The moment he came to, Billy Jack began to panic because he had no idea where he was. “Don’t worry, it’s all right,’’ I said, so happy to see him awake.
I didn’t bring Carney in to see her daddy – I was worried she would be scared seeing him wrapped up in bandages and with tubes coming out of his body. “He’s in hospital and getting better,’’ I told her whenever she asked me about him. I showed Billy Jack pictures of her. Slowly, he recovered until three months later, all tubes were removed after the doctors found he could breathe, eat and drink on his own.
Billy Jack then wanted to see himself and doctors allowed him to take a look in the mirror.
“I wish I had died,’’ he said, staring at his reflection. “Carney will think I am a monster.”
He had lost his ears and his face was just a mass of tissue. The skin of most of his trunk was missing. He still had a tracheostomy – a surgical opening made in the neck to deliver oxygen more easily to the lungs.
“Don’t worry. It will all get better,’’ I comforted him.
“Are you sure?’’ he asked me. “I am not sure I will be able to do anything that I used to. I feel useless lying here like this.’’
Wiping away the tears, I said, “You are alive, there is still purpose for your life. You will get better. You survived the horrendous fire. You can come back to your usual self.’’
I knew the best thing for him was to see Carney so I arranged to bring her in. He was apprehensive about what she would say when she saw him. “Carney will think I am a monster,’’ he kept repeating.
The moment she walked into the room, the first thing he asked her was “Daddy looks different, doesn’t he, Baby?’’ Carney smiled and gently held his hand.
“Yeah, but you still look real good, Daddy,’’ she replied with a big smile. She wasn’t afraid at all after seeing him, and her acceptance of how he looked was healing for him.
I had told her that he had been severely burnt and that he had lost lot of his skin but that he was also recuperating. Of course, there were moments when Billy Jack would slump into depression, but I’d remind him that he could have died, and that he had everything to look forward to. Then he’d cheer himself up and chatter on, talking about what he was going to do when he came out of hospital.
He had to undergo operation after painful operation to rebuild his face, and graft skin on to his burns.
Rebuilding our lives
After four months and 17 days in hospital we were able to move Billy Jack to a rehabilitation centre in our hometown of Jackson Mississippi. Initially the doctors said he would have to be in hospital for two years, but seeing how he was progressing, they agreed to let him come nearer to home, so that friends and family could all help with his physical and mental recovery.
Although the centre had no idea how to treat burn victims, it was only 20 minutes from our home, so I fought to get him in. I agreed to look after him, and would change his dressings each day. His body was still like hamburger meat, but I learnt to deal with it.
He also needed a 3,000 calorie-a-day diet – required for his body to heal itself.
On August 23, 2006, five months after the accident, Billy Jack was allowed home, one of the survivors of the worst burns in America. From there we had a hard few years of therapy.
The nurses at the hospital burn unit taught me how to do his dressing changes at home. Because he was big and needed to be moved with extreme care so as not to hurt the skin grafts that were still healing, my dad and brother-in-law helped me with the dressing from the time we left the hospital.
Billy Jack would scream out in pain every time I did the dressing changes for the first six months. We would both be crying by the time it was finished, as I couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much.
For nearly four years, Billy Jack had to undergo therapy including massages to keep his muscles in shape and skin supple as skin grafts can go hard. He also had a total of 120 operations including reconstructive surgery to increase limb mobility and function.
Initially I had to drive him for the therapy sessions. But a year after his accident, he started driving on his own, which was a huge milestone and confidence booster for Billy Jack. It was another step towards independence and for Carney it meant being able to see a very small glimpse of “Daddy” again.
In December 2009 we moved to a cooler climate in North Carolina so it would help his body stay cool and help the skin grafts heal quicker. Living with his scars is not easy though. Whenever we go to a supermarket people stare at him. “It’s hard when little kids scream when they see me up close,’’ he tells me. But that has not stopped him from going out. “I’ve got to learn to live with it,’’ he says.
“The day Carney squeezed my hand and said, ‘You still look real good,’ that was one of the best days of my life,’’ he often says.
Last year we wrote a book about our story called Dead Man Breathing and set up the Billy Jack McDaniel Non Profit, a charity dedicated to educating people about the importance of personal and workplace safety and to help other burn victims.
We are advocates for the burn community, providing medical supplies for burns, as well as medical, legal and counselling resources to those who need it. Jack also speaks to corporations and industries to promote safety. We help anybody we can as long as we are financially able to do so, but we are in desperate need of funds at the moment.
This tragedy will not define who we are or have control over us. It made us better, and we are sharing it with others to give the next person a ray of hope for their challenge.
We only hope that nobody will ever have to undergo what we have.
A’leta, 35, lives in Banner Elk, North Carolina