Location: Ellicott, Colorado
Date: June 21, 1988
On June 21, 1988, Bill Walter, his wife, Cindy, and their three children, Adam, Megan, and Abby, were in their small wood frame house on a cattle ranch Bill was managing in Ellicott, Colorado. It was a stormy evening. Cindy was starting dinner. "I was in the kitchen, and I was getting ready to fix our supper. I turned on the hot water to wash my hands and it came out cold," said Cindy. "Assuming that the pilot light had gone out on the water heater, I asked Bill to go to the basement and relight it for us."
"The children were planning on doing chores with their dad. So they sat at the top of the stairs and got their shoes on," remembers Cindy. "I had fed our baby, Abby, and put her to bed." As in many remote areas, the Walters' water heater was fueled by propane, a colorless gas.
In the basement, Bill struck a match multiple times. Then a fireball broke out of the water heater. "I thought at first that the house had been hit by lightning. That's all I could think of," said Cindy. "Bill was hollering and the kids were screaming, and the first thing I saw of them was unrecognizable. I realize that an accident occurred and they were burned and the only thing I could remember was to call 911."
So Cindy called 911, and the call was taken by Dispatcher Laurie Manuel. At first, the background was very unintelligible. "Ma'am, you're going to have to stop screaming. I can't hear you," said Laurie. "We had an explosion with propane gas," Cindy said. "What is the address?" Laurie asked. "We live at 3560 Ellicott Highway," replied Cindy. "I want you to stay on the line," said Laurie. Laurie then transferred the call to Renee Pephic, who took a call from the sheriff's department. She stayed on the line in case she needed help. "I heard children screaming in the background. It's a scream I've never heard before," remembers Renee. "Their whole lives were being changed just in that instant. That's what was going through my mind," Laurie said.
The call for help went out. Volunteer emergency services were the first to respond. Neighbors from across the county were alerted with a series of pagers. "Everybody that heard the call felt the seriousness of it. You take your fire gear and get out the door. If you go to the station you may pick up equipment. If the call was on your end of the county you have to go direct," said Gene Willard, a Volunteer medical specialist. Gene went by the station to pick up the local ambulance. "It makes your heart go thump. You have friends. You have neighbors. And you pick them up and they may die right in your arms. So if you press down on the gas pedal, you go faster."
Meanwhile, Cindy had been on hold with 911 and now she was transferred to the fire department. "How old is the patient?" the dispatcher asked. "There's three. We have a man, 36, a boy, 6, and a girl, 4. It looks like their skin is burned right off," Cindy said. "Now the best thing to do is to get a light dry dressing or sheet if possible. How much of their bodies is burned?" the dispatcher asked. "All over, their hair, their face, their arms, everything. It looks like their clothes are burned off," Cindy said. The dispatcher asked, "Are any of them having trouble breathing?" "Yes, my daughter is. The four-year-old," Cindy said.
Cindy was still on the phone with the fire department when the first responders arrived. Gene's daughter, Shawna Nelson, an off duty Colorado Springs paramedic, took charge at the scene. "The treatment of burn patients is going through my mind. Burns are always difficult to handle. I've seen burn patients before, but I was not prepared for what I was about to see. You walk in and this goes in your mind in a flash. 'If I pick her up, I'm going to hurt her. If I pick her up, I'm going to contaminate her. But she has to be moved. She has to go to the hospital and there's no time to waste.'"
When a pool of propane gas exploded, a fireball shot up the cinder block stairway and out of the house, and both the children sitting at the top of the stairs were severely burned. "I was really concerned about Adam because he stopped breathing at one point for about 35 to 45 seconds. I yelled to him and did an external rub, and he began breathing again. I kept thinking what's going to happen with this family? I was afraid they would die. And I really didn't have the time to say, 'Mr. Walter, if there's something you would like to say to your children, say it now.'"
Cindy followed her family to the hospital. "When they came out they were on gurneys. They wheeled them past me and you wouldn't really know who they were. Their hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows were gone. They were swollen to about twice the same size that they had been. When Megan came through, I knew she couldn't hear me. But I leaned over and touched the top of her head, and her hair came off, and I thought well, this is the end. My children aren't there anymore."
Meanwhile a helicopter was being launched into a field. Bill, Adam, and Megan were carried in it to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs. Plastic surgeon Alexander McCullouch was on call that night. "All three patients were in critical condition with second and third-degree burns, no questions that their lives were in danger," Dr. McCullouch said. "From that time on I really prayed that they would die. I didn't want them to go through the pain and disfigurement they had so I prayed that way, and in the morning when they were still alive, I thought well I need to change my thinking that they're alive this long and we need to work with this now."
Months of skin grafts and slow healing began especially for Adam and Megan. "When we were really sick in the hospital, it was very confusing for us because we didn't know what was happening at that time. We couldn't even talk," said Adam. "We had to dress them, we had to feed them, we had to do everything for them," Cindy said.
Within weeks they were fitted with special silicone masks and elastic bodysuits to reduce the scarring. They started a program of intensive therapy to increase their mobility. "Then began our process of little miracles. They began to heal and different things. Even though the outside of them was changed, they were still there and I was thankful for that," said Cindy.
A year later, the Walters began to build a new life, and they never went back to the house that caused them so much sadness. "I'm very proud of my children because of what's happened to them. They will have to exceed what is possible for a normal person. In ways I wish I had the same stamina that they have," Bill said. "All the patients have done very well. As time goes by, usually the scars improve," Dr. McCullouch said. "The family has an unbelievable faith, courage, and just plain gumption. They come together through the whole thing," Gene said. "Perhaps they saw the courage in us and we also saw the courage in them. The people that helped our children cared. And they helped us to be strong. Even though it looks like they have been burned, and there will be differences where we want to give our children care and deal with that."
"We have told the kids that they are special because of what they're going through and I anticipate what they're going through," Cindy said. "I think the biggest part of living is learning how to live life, no matter what the conditions are. So it's not a cause for giving up," Bill said. "It's like you're on an adventure in the jungle and you never know what is going to pop up," said Adam.