A South Dakota newspaper tells the story of firefighter Austin Whitney, 23, who is in the long and painful process of recovering from second and third burns over his body after the Coal Canyon wildfire.
Austin was trapped in the massive fire along with four fellow firefighters.
“What’s helping his recovery most,” his father said, “is the focused power of his mind.
His spirits are up and over the moon! Five days into his recovery Austin told me that this incident won’t stop him from being a firefighter. ”
“It was very hard for the family to wrap their hearts around the awful news of their son’s burning.
“A lot of emotions were streaming through my head at the time,” Robert said.
“We didn’t know how bad it was or what was going on, and it turned everything topsy- turvy. Everyone was frantic.”
Austin is following in the firefighting footsteps of his father, grandfather, aunts, and uncles.
His first season was with the “South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division,” a state firefighting agency.
But Austin had started fighting fires when he turned 18, joining the “Pringle Volunteer Fire Department”–the same department as his father and grandfather.
Then, he joined the “Cascade Volunteer Fire Department” the following year, and is co-captain now.
“His infusion of courage is growing in so many of us,” said Austin’s father.
“I am grateful that our lives would converge this way. What a wonderful world!”
(Thank you to Larry Kramer for his contribution to this blog).
It’s Saturday, October 13, 2001, roughly 3:00 in the pm, exactly 32 days after September 11; the horror of all horrors, my deepest rung of hell to-date. We’re on highway 83, along the Mexican border, in Texas, driving 70 miles an hour.
Out of nowhere, I hear a loud Bang!
Backfire? Bomb? My head exploding?
I notice Ron out of the corner of my eye.
He is tightening his grip on the steering wheel, trying to steer.
He loses control of the wheel. We are minus the tread on our rear tire.
There is no way to handle the crisis we’re in, our family’s SUV has started to skid.
Then it overturns.
We are rolling.
The car flips three or four times. We finally slide to a stop on the other side of the overpass.
That’s when our car burst into flames!
And my family and I are trapped inside.
We rescued everyone but Ryan.He died in the hellish fire.
We experienced all the pain there is, physically and emotionally. Light couldn’t crowbar its way into the dark night of the soul.
Did I tell you that we had two more little boys–Trenton and Colton. They were, along with Tyler, at the center of our recovery.
Moving to Alabama
We were in a fishbowl in South Texas. Most every day someone would stare, or ask about the accident.
We were known around town as the “sad family.” Alabama felt like the right place to keep moving forward.
We enjoyed life on Lake Martin, homeschooling the boys for 5 years. It has been our refuge and I have done my most creative work there. It is our home and a quiet place to remember Ryan.
The boys are in school in Birmingham now, it’s where we have found community. It is also the place where we connect with pediatric burn survivors and firefighters.
I’ve been through hell and back and I’ve wondered if there is a way I can offer what I’ve learned over these 16 years. I began writing down my feelings, and thoughts.
Suddenly I realized that I had all the makings of a blog. I publish my blog every week on Thursday.
It provides a way to help myself as I map my journey; but more than that, it gives me the opportunity to help others in their struggles.
Our Epic Trip
One of our sons suggested that we take a long learning vacation.
Everybody agreed. We spent almost every evening dreaming and talking about where and when. We decided to take a trip around the world.
I had been home-schooling the boys anyway, and this would be an epic field trip. We made a list of the countries each of us wanted to visit, and everyone prepared reports on their countries.
The trip was beautiful and challenging. We were all together. We were laminated.
The Camping Connection
We knew we wanted to establish a Pediatric Burn Camp to honor Ryan, and while we were exploring our options we discovered that firefighters created and ran burn camps around the country.
They invested heart and soul into the camps and the children! That grew into a partnership between our burn foundation (RyanShines) and firefighters.
We needed chaperones for our first fishing event (“Catching Courage”).
Guess who stepped into the spotlight?
They didn’t need a lot of instruction.
They are “the naturals.”
Their way with our burn kids is enveloped in respect and genuine friendship.
Picture it: two heroes sitting together ‘sharing with understanding.’
RyanShines Burn Foundation
I love the sound of these two words that are hooked together like a train: RyanShines!
It is named for Ryan, of course.
But it comes from a work of art at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen, TX.
It is a twenty-foot mosaic and the designer dedicated it to Ryan.
The mosaic is called “Ryan Shines.”
Out of that holy name came every good Gift that shines on the children and firefighters.
Our mission is that “no burned child be left behind, and no firefighter will be forgotten.”
Every year we take pediatric burn survivors and firefighters to Islamorada in the Florida keys.
The first year we took 7 firefighters and 6 burn survivors. This year, our 3rd, we are taking 40 firefighters and 10 burn survivors, from 6 states.
Peer Support Team for Firefighters
We realized that our firefighters are first to a fire. They rescue children, adults, and pets.
But who rescues the firefighters? Who stands beside them? Firefighters undergo injuries, grief, risk, fear, and death. Alabama is #2 in suicides over work-related deaths in the United States.
Ryan Shines is a proud partner in our state’s first Alabama Firefighter Peer Support team(ALFFPS). We are talking about ‘healing by listening,’ and putting them together with their peer-brothers who understand what really goes on in the body, soul, and life of a firefighter.
“Catching Courage” Events
These outdoor events consist of fishing, hunting, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and any team-building with pediatric burn survivors and firefighters.
This year we hosted our first Catching Courage Family Camp.
They are all designed to create healing, developing bonds between the participants, and building lasting relationships.
Our 5-year Plan
The future is as unlimited as the horizon. Here’s what we see ahead…
Organizing 4 Catching Courage events per year in each of the 50 states.
Taking a team of 4 firefighters from each state, each year to our Catching Courage event in the Keys.
Creating a statewide Firefighter Peer Support Team in every state that needs one.
Growing burn children into good, honest, productive and confident citizens.
“My name is Cody, I’m 18, and I just began my sophomore year in college.
Let me tell you about my accident.
Some people started a trash fire behind the old boathouse.
They poured boat fuel on it.
The fuel ignited with the flames and, suddenly, I was on fire!
I was three at the time, and I was burned over 70% of my body.
My biggest challenge was getting back to moving.
After the fire and 46 surgeries, I couldn’t move around.
I was just stiff and wanted to sit in one place and never move.
I don’t really ever think about my scars, they are a part of me and they’ve been there basically all my life.
Even when I was little I never let them hold me back, but it was hard not being able to do the stuff other kids were doing for a while and it made me jealous.
But it was that very jealousy showed me that, ‘’hey if I want to be like them I gotta work for it!’’
So I did.
When I look back, my accident was positive.
It made me work harder than others.
My accident gave me the courage and determination to do that!
If I could tell everybody what I’ve learned it’s this: ‘DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED, because in a second your life could change, and things will never be the same.”
Cody isn’t letting anything stop him, especially his scars.
“There haven’t been any huge problems.
My burns haven’t slowed me down at all.
Half the time I forget about them.”
Cody’s story of perseverance has made him a regional winner in the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship’s Achievement category, which honors Alabama high school athletes” who have overcome personal hardship to excel on and off the field.
He has earned a $2,500 scholarship.
We at Ryan Shines respect him so much that we gave him our first “Ryan Hirn Memorial Scholarship.
“I don’t want people to look at their scars and be ashamed; I want them to hold their head up and let their scars shine bright.
Our scars are beautiful!
Everyone says pictures are worth a thousand words . . . well, I’m a firm believer that scars are worth at least a million!