Campfire warning – ‘I became a human fireball’

Brave Jake shares his terrifying story

Jake was celebrating a friend’s birthday when his life changed forever.

Here, Jake Zogoolas, 31, from Melbourne, shares his story in his own words.

Cracking open a beer, I burst out laughing as my friend shared a joke. It was his 21st birthday and he’d thrown a party on his land in Deniliquin, rural NSW.  

As it was winter, I’d wrapped up in two jumpers and a shirt to keep warm.  

We also had a few fires dotted around, which were flickering in huge metal grids.  

As the evening went on, the flames started to fade, so my friend poured some petrol onto the fires to reignite them.  

It wasn’t the safest idea, but after a loud explosion, the fire flickered away safely again.  

But later, I was chatting to a friend when I heard a whoooosh 

Suddenly, a huge fireball was hurtling towards me, then the hot flames hit me square in the chest. 

Panicking, I remembered to stop, drop and roll.  

Jake Zogoolas before the accident
Me before the accident

But because there was petrol, it created an air pocket and the blaze spread to my face. 

I was a human fireball!   

As the hot flames licked my face and chest, I felt a pain like never before.  

After three frantic minutes, someone was pouring water over me and the blaze finally  

went out.   

‘An ambulance is on its way,’ someone said, as a blanket was wrapped around me.  

Looking down, my jumper and pants had burned away – only my shoes and boxers were left.  

Skin was hanging off my left hand too, revealing bone.  

Despite the severe burns, the pain had gone and I felt numb. I even walked from the ambo into the hospital.  

‘How are you feeling?’ a nurse asked.  

‘I actually feel fine,’ I replied.  

‘We’re going to put you in a coma now and airlift you to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. But I’ll be honest, you might not survive this,’ she said.  

‘What?’ I gasped.  

‘Time is of the essence, we need to put you under now,’ she said.  

Jake undergoing treatment
Undergoing treatment on my scars

Then everything went black.  

Waking up later, I blinked and saw my parents, Janet and George.  

‘Am I dead?’ I asked.  

‘No, you’ve been in an accident, love,’ Mum said.  

A doctor explained I had third-degree burns to 69 per cent of my body.  

‘You’ve been in a coma for the past three weeks and you died twice. You’re lucky to be here,’ he said.  

‘I can’t believe it,’ I breathed.  

Surgeons had taken skin grafts from my back to help heal the burns. But it wasn’t until a nurse took me for a bath and unravelled the bandages that the reality of my situation hit me.  

My body looked like a crisp chicken.  

The skin from the top of my face, right down to my ankles, was all singed.  

I’d been wearing cheap boxers from Thailand which hadn’t caught alight – so luckily this part of my skin had stayed protected.  

‘You’re going to get through this, we’re here for you,’ Mum reassured me.  

Chatting with friends from the party, everything came flooding back.  

My mate had doused a dying fire with petrol, hoping it would reignite.  

But instead, the fire had started running towards the petrol kettle, creating a fireball.  

Panicking, he had thrown the kettle away and it had landed directly on me.  

My friend had written a letter apologising, but I didn’t blame him.  

I knew it was just a horrible accident.  

Jake Zogoolas now
Me after the accident

After three long months and 15 ops, I was finally discharged from hospital.  

I moved back in with my brother, Paul, and a doctor visited daily to change my bandages.  

I also had to wear a compression suit, and every night Paul would place splints under each arm that helped repair my skin.  

To decrease the scarring, I also trialled steroid injections from a private dermatologist.  

Those, and regular CO2 laser, which I paid for, helped to fade the scars.  

But at home, I couldn’t shake my flat mood.  

Before the accident, I’d loved the gym and my job in finance.   

Now, my confidence was completely knocked.  

Mum had always been into herbal teas and she insisted I try a detox one.  

After a few weeks, I truly felt like my mood had lifted.  

‘If money was no object, what would you want to do in life?’ Mum asked one day.  

‘I would love to create a foundation for burns survivors who can’t afford treatment like I did,’ I said.  

Janet Roach and Jake Zogoolas
Mum and me with our Raw Essentials Tea

She came up with an idea to start selling natural tea blends.  

‘The money we make can support the foundation,’ she explained.  

So we created Raw Essentials Teas and then The Roach Foundation.  

The first person we helped was my friend Brittany, who  I had met in the burns unit. 

It’s been incredibly rewarding to help those who have been through a similar experience to myself.  

Now, 10 years after the accident, I feel happier and more confident than ever.  

I’m still close with my mate who poured the petrol on the fire and I don’t blame him at all.  

I’ve chosen not to name him, as he’s already been through so much emotional pain from the accident. 

I want people to know the consequences of putting dangerous accelerants onto a fire. 

But most importantly, that no matter how bad life can feel, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.  

Time heals everything and things always get better. ● 

As told to Kathryn Lewsey 

To help, visit Roach Foundation 

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