Stories


“HOPE LIES INSIDE” now available on iTunes

This original song was written especially for TRIAL BY FIRE: Lives Re-Forged by Colin Kassekert & Megan Smith-Harris.

Every penny from the sale of this song goes to our non-profit production. Please listen and enjoy, then FORWARD, POST, TWEET & SHARE this song. Help us spread the inspiring message of this film. Thank you.

J.R. Martinez (27, Los Angeles CA)

At 19, J.R. Martinez was serving as a U.S. soldier in Iraq. His Humvee hit a landmine and the vehicle exploded. J.R. suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body and was immediately evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany. Eventually he was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas where he had over 32 surgeries and spent 34 months in recovery.

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“April 5 2003 was my rebirth. Because I literally was reborn…
I had to do everything over again but I learned it in such a deeper way,
in a way I was more connected to life and people and adversity and
it was a blessing. I feel like the fire completely re-forged my life.

While in recovery, he started speaking to other burn patients within the hospital, sharing his experiences and listening to theirs. News of his story and efforts to help other people quickly spread, and ABC’s “All My Children” was inspired to incorporate his story into the show. Now J.R. is an in demand motivational speaker and a popular celebrity contestant on “Dancing With The Stars.” His visit to Connor McKemey has inspired him to want to help others as well. Connor now aspires to a future career as a motivational speaker.

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Karin & Connor McKemey (Tega Cay, SC)
A MOTHER’S NIGHTMARE, A SON’S COURAGE

Karin, a high school teacher and mother of three, was counting the hours until her husband returned from his tour of duty in Iraq. While packing for a family Christmas trip, she heard a loud whoosh, looked through the window and was horrified to see her 13 year-old son, Connor, standing in front of their outdoor fireplace engulfed in flames.
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“He was a human fireball. Like one of those stunt men in the movies – only those guys are wearing protective asbestos suits; Connor wasn’t.”

Karin leapt through family room window and threw herself onto her son’s burning body, but she was unable to stop the flames. A holiday miracle appeared in the shape of their neighbor Dan, a volunteer firefighter who heard Karin’s cries for help and came to the rescue.

“I lay in my hospital bed and felt my heart breaking.
Every minute of every day I was terrified he wasn’t going to make it.”

Air-lifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center for treatment, Karin had cuts and third degree burns to her face, legs, arms and hands; Connor had burns to 90% of his body – 75% were third degree – and was given a 1% chance of survival.

Amazingly, Connor did survive and proved the dire predictions of his doctors, wrong. Through single-minded determination and sheer force of will Connor regained enough strength and flexibility not only to walk again, but also to play lacrosse. While Connor works on his physical recovery, Karin’s focus is on emotional recovery as she struggles daily with a crippling maternal guilt.

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“He’s my Bionic Boy. I still feel he’s living on borrowed time though and I’m convinced that people judge me.
I’m his mother – why didn’t I keep him safe?”

Calais Weber (20, Wellesley College, MA)
BEAUTY LOST AND FOUND

At 15, Calais Weber was a young woman with a seemingly boundless future. An excellent student who had modeled part-time for years, she was attending an elite boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.

One day in chemistry class, her teacher demonstrated the process of burning chemical salts to create the colors of the rainbow. She did not follow proper safety protocol (which requires the students to wear protective aprons and eyewear among other things) and then inexplicably poured a gallon of methanol onto a small flame causing a massive explosion. Calais’ hair and uniform caught on fire. Panicked, the teacher screamed for everyone to get out leaving Calais alone in the classroom, still in flames.

“I tried to roll on the linoleum but I couldn’t put myself out. I could feel my nerve endings burning. All I could think is, I’m fifteen years-old, I’m going to die and I’ve never been kissed.’
I prayed to die faster.”

Galvanized by a sudden will to live, Calais crawled to the threshold of the classroom and the hall where she collapsed. Luckily, a janitor was passing by, grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the flames. He saved Calais’s life but she was left with burns to over half of her body. After sixteen surgeries and three months in the hospital Calais couldn’t wait to go back to school to be with her friends and reclaim a sense of normalcy. But upon her return, she was stunned to learn that her chemistry teacher was still conducting classes. Calais struggled with post-traumatic stress, depression and low self esteem.

Calais credits Angel Faces – an innovative California retreat designed to empower young women with burns and facial disfigurements – for transforming her life. Under the inspirational leadership of childhood burn survivor Lesia Cartelli, Calais learned to confront her anger and despair and move on.

Calais recently graduated from Wellesley College. In the future, she hopes to attend medical school to fulfill a lifelong ambition to become a reconstructive surgeon so that she may help others.

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“Angel Faces saved my life. My parents say it gave them their daughter back.”

Duane Wright (45, Sacramento, CA)
THE NEW NORMAL

As a firefighter, Duane knew he’d face danger but at age 20 he never expected to be battling one hundred foot flames in a California brush fire. With remarkable courage and perseverance, Duane was back on the job within 10 months, this time monitoring the emergencies from the call center.

“Getting burned is so much more than the pain of the actual injury… for me it was reintegrating into society with this disfigured body. I had the whole identity of the firefighter, but then when I would leave and go home I had the identity of this burn survivor who didn’t really feel like I fit.”

After finally learning to accept his scars and himself, Duane began to visit young burn patients at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, and suddenly knew he wanted to do more. Duane went back to school to become a certified social worker and now uses his experience to help other burn survivors and their families cope with their “new normal.”

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Justina Page (43, Houston, TX)
HOPE FROM THE ASHES

James and Justina Page awoke to an explosion in their rental home. Chaos ensued as the couple desperately tried to find their six sons in a choking smoke that obscured all visibility. James ran to one side of the house to lead the four older boys to safety while Justina rushed to the nursery to rescue their 21 month-old twins from their cribs. A burning bookcase fell on top of the frenzied mother, leaving her trapped. By the time she was freed, one twin was saved but it was too late for baby Amos who perished in the fire.

Justina was determined that her son Amos would not die in vain. She channeled her pain into helping other burn survivors, becoming an advocate for burn patients and their families.

“I was depressed, guilty and in a lot of physical and emotional pain. Why was God so angry with me? Why did this tragedy happen to me? What had I done? I was a good mother, I loved my kids. Why was I being punished?”

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Harli White (14, Lindsay, Oklahoma)
RACING TO RECOVERY

Her mother calls her “a speed demon,” and her father describes his daughter as “a total adrenaline junkie.” Harli White was driving her new wing sprint car for the very first time when she made an unexpected and unwelcome pit stop: her car clipped a wall, flipped, crashed and exploded. Her mother watched in horror from the stands; her father leapt over the track barrier and ran to his daughter’s side.

“She was lying there in a bed of flames, screaming her head off.
Her foot was caught in the steering wheel. She was trapped.”

Another racer braved the flames and pulled Harli from the blazing wreck. Rushed to a local hospital, Michelle and Charlie were distraught to learn that their daughter could not be treated there. Harli needed to be transferred to a pediatric hospital specializing in burn injuries but there were was no such hospital nearby. With burns to forty percent cent of her body Harli was in agony, her life was in peril and her parents were desperate. Just then Charlie White’s cell phone rang. The Shriners Hospitals for Children Burn Hospitals arranged for Harli to be flown down to their facility in Galveston. It saved Harli’s life.

Harli’s spirit and drive to recover from her ordeal have been nothing less than extraordinary. Today, two years after the accident, she plays basketball in her burn compression garments, has made it onto the cheerleading squad, and despite her parents’ pleas, is pursuing her dream of becoming a professional NASCAR driver. Harli is now a winning presence on the racing circuit and was just selected as a driver in the prestigious 2012 Chili Bowl Nationals.

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“Racing is in my blood. I want to be the first woman to win at NASCAR. That’s my dream.
If I can’t race then I might as well be dead.”


John Capanna (51, Albrightsville, PA)
CARVING OUT A NEW LIFE

At 20, John Capanna had every reason to be happy: he was smart, strong, and good-looking. And had just been promoted. Summoned to an oil refinery to disassemble an old water pipe, he discovered that the bolts were too rusted to pry open so he used an acetylene torch to burn them off. The pipe had been mislabeled and instead of water, it contained crude oil. The ensuing explosion had the impact of eight sticks of dynamite. Capanna, covered in burning crude oil, was hurled against a steel beam and thrown to the ground. He never lost consciousness.

The last rites were administered to seven times. Excruciating treatments and 75 surgeries saved his life, but John was left with the legacy of drug dependency. John shares his odyssey of addiction and recovery, overcome drug addiction, been married twice, fathered four children and is a proud grandfather to a grandson. He talks candidly about his descent into drug dependency – a common occurrence for burn survivors – and his unusual road to recovery and personal happiness through wood-carving.

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“The accident, the fire, the drugs, the recovery – it’s all been a tragic gift.”