RACINE — Waking up surrounded by flames on Nov. 14, Joshua White is in rare company as a fire survivor.
That being said, the last 11 months haven’t been easy for him, as he continues a long recovery and rehabilitation from extensive burns suffered in the blaze.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were about 3,700 civilian fire deaths and 16,600 civilian fire injuries in the U.S. in 2019, with property damages estimated at $14.8 billion.
Beating the odds
Having fallen asleep in a chair in his lower duplex at 10th and Pearl streets after a late-night session of an ambitious, down-to-the-studs remodeling of his lower duplex, White, 40, awoke at 3:30 a.m. surrounded by flames.
“I woke up and I was just consumed in fire,” he recalled.
Due to the remodeling project, smoke detectors were not in place to wake White and give him an advance warning.
Disoriented due to likely carbon monoxide poisoning from the fire and unable to remember the time-honored stop, drop and roll fire safety mantra, White was found standing dazed, surrounded by fire, by civilian rescuers Craig Conway and Jeffrey Dreher, upper duplex ex-military buddies who brought White to safety before Racine firefighters arrived on scene.
“I felt like I was just trapped in a box and just couldn’t get out,” White said of the mental fog of the possible carbon monoxide poisoning. “And then I saw Craig and I was good. I just blacked out and didn’t have any memory after that.”
It wasn’t until Jan. 20 that White regained consciousness.
Now residing with his brother and nephew in Kenosha, White sustained deep second- and third-degree burns in the fire and was transported to the burn unit at Columbia-St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, where he was kept in a drug-induced coma for more than two months.
Skin grafts now cover 60% of his body between his ears and knees. After six weeks of in-hospital rehabilitation to learn how to walk again and improve his skin elasticity and range of motion, White was discharged from Columbia-St. Mary’s on March 12.
Exuding optimism and a new resolve to not take life for granted, White has kept his spirits up during his recovery, thanks in good measure to the “love and support” of friends, family and the Racine community, including “prayer support.”
“I’ve been blessed,” White said. “I used to take things for granted. I’ve started to think a lot more about things than I did before. I’ve had time to reflect on things. ”
White is particularly grateful for the support and care provided by his brother, Nathan White, and his nephew, Isaac White, who took him into their Kenosha home and have provided the care he’s needed since his discharge.
“I’d reached out to see what was available for help, but here was no government help or anything like that,” White noted. “I was unable to feed myself or do anything else. I had no mobility. My family nursed me back to health. I was blessed to have them to support me and minister to my needs.”
While he’s made significant progress in his recovery efforts, achieving “a remarkable range of motion,” Racine Fire Department Capt. Craig Ford noted that White “still has a challenging path ahead of him,” with 18 to 24 months of rehabilitation still ahead.
Among White’s biggest ongoing changes, given the extent of his skin grafts and scar tissue, is maintaining his skin elasticity to achieve range of motion in support of activities that most take for granted.
“It’s a long road, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, rise above,” White said, taking a “glass half full” view of his physical, psychological and spiritual recovery in the wake of the fire. “I’ve gotta keep working on it, focus on what I have to do to move on. It takes a lot of work to come out of that.
“I don’t see limitations, road blocks. I see open doors for what’s out there. I don’t want to sit around and be stagnant. I want to pursue life.”
Part of his post-fire recovery will likely be a new career, given his injuries, the scar tissue leaving him “sapped.” A veteran of the construction trades, White plans to look into vocational training for new career options.
“It’s going to take some adapting and overcoming,” he noted. “I’m keeping my options open … I’m opening up my horizons.”
Advocate for fire safety education
Joining Ford and Racine Fire public educator Lt. John Magnus on Monday at Station 1, 810 Eighth St., White promoted the importance of fire safety and prevention education as part of the Fire Prevention Bureau’s Fire Prevention Month observations and activities, stressing the “prevention first and foremost” importance of having working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detections in the home.
“Before, I didn’t have a smoke alarm, I wasn’t thinking all this prevention stuff,” White said. “In light of my situation, I’m becoming more aware of what all goes into helping prevent fires … and surviving them.”
Smoke detectors, which retail for just $10 to $20, are an inexpensive first line of defense.
“Smoke alarms are your early warning,” Magnus said. “They’re your only real shot. The attack line for any fire is the smoke alarm.”
Because of the growing presence of hydrocarbon-based materials, including plastics and glues, in today’s home furnishings, Magnus warned that the window for successful structure fire escapes has shrunk dramatically over the decades, falling from 17 minutes in the late 1960s to less than 3 minutes today.
Magnus said White’s extensive burn injuries above his knees highlight the importance of staying low and crawling on the floor during a fire, noting the thermal dynamics are such that temperatures may reach in excess of 1,200 degrees at a height of 6 feet, 700 to 800 degrees at chest level and 300 to 400 degrees at knee level, compared to less than 200 degrees at crawling height. Additionally, the cleanest air for breathing and visibility also is near the floor.
“If confronted by smoke, stay low and crawl to your planned exit,” Magnus said. “Staying low and not standing up is so important.
“Have a home escape plan and practice it. Have an arranged meeting spot so you know if everyone is out of the house or apartment. And once you’re out of a burning building, stay out.”
Added Ford: “Prevention is a big, big deal. Practice it.”
When serious injury does strike, White reached into his own experiences to provide encouragement for fire injury victims like himself.
“We can’t always prevent everything,” White noted. “The important thing I see is overcoming things when disaster does strike. You’ve gotta keep going and get support.”
During his visit to Station 1, White thanked Racine firefighters and Fire Department officials for their dedication to providing round-the-clock fire, rescue and EMS services to the city.
“You guys are my heroes,” White told the firefighters. “You guys are putting your lives on the line … putting others first. I want to show my appreciation for what you guys do. Every aspect of what you do is huge. I want to help morally support and spiritually support you guys in what you do.
“Keep going and keep strong. You guys are an inspiration to me.”