Here, Colleen, 55, tells the story in her own words.
W￼ith a couple of hours to kill before my mum’s birthday dinner, I settled in front of the TV. ‘Shall we light the fire?’ I asked my husband Greg.
It was July 2016 and the house felt a bit cold. But when Greg tried to start it with fire lighters, the wood wouldn’t burn. ‘I’ve used them all up,’ he said. ‘I’ll go to the service station.’ It turned out the shop had run out too, though. ‘Just get the petrol,’ I said. So Greg threw a bit of fuel on the wood and lit it, but it went out immediately. Tossing some more petrol into the fireplace, there was suddenly a flashback. Jumping in shock, petrol splashed all over the place and a flame engulfed Greg’s arm. ‘Quick, get outside!’ I cried.
In all the commotion, Greg fell over the coffee table. Now his clothes were alight too! Back and knee injuries from his time in the Navy meant Greg couldn’t get up and, with the fire taking hold, I couldn’t get near to roll him. Desperately, looking around, I couldn’t see anything to smother the flames with either.I can’t leave him alone burning, I thought in horror.
Instinct taking over, there was nothing else for it... I launched myself on top of him. Then I rolled until the flames went out, like a human fire extinguisher. But as I pulled Greg up, I realised the back of my maxi-dress was alight. Ripping it off, we both ran outside. ‘Oh my God!’ I kept saying. The pain didn’t really hit me until my next-door neighbour, Deb, helped me into a cold shower. Meanwhile, Greg soothed his hand in a bucket of water until paramedics arrived.
At Fiona Stanley Hospital, I was given so much pain relief I barely remember anything. There were burns to 27 per cent of my body, all over my back, down my left leg to my ankle and on my left arm. Then my kidneys began to fail and I suffered deep vein thrombosis in my arm. As I recovered in ICU, Greg was beside himself. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. But I didn’t blame him, after all it had been my idea to get the petrol.
After a skin graft on his hand, Greg was discharged. Our house was unlivable so he found a rental. Everything was covered in black smoke and all our belongings had to be thrown. Thankfully, my kids, Reeanne, 26, Reagan, 24, and Rhien, 22, hadn’t been home at the time. ‘How could you have been so stupid?’ they asked us. It was a good question. Throwing petrol on a fire had been reckless and now we were paying the price.
I needed grafts, where skin was taken from my right thigh and every two days my dressings were changed. As part of the healing process, I was put into a hyperbaric chamber for two hours a day to flood the tissue with oxygen.‘It’s my chance to relax,’ I joked, between all the physio sessions and occupational therapy.
After two months, I was allowed out. Going to see the house was devastating. ‘It’s a shell,’ I gasped. Despite everything, I tried to keep my sense of humour.
‘I look like Batman,’ I said, of the tight pressure suit I had to wear.
Finally, nine months after the fire, we were allowed to move back into our place. One day, my sister-in-law Susan was visiting when there was something on the radio about the Royal Life Saving Bravery Awards. ‘You should nominate me for being so brave,’ I laughed. ‘No, you were stupid!’ Susan teased. I didn’t think anything more about it, but a few months later the phone rang.‘You’re being awarded for your actions,’ I was told. Susan had nominated me after all! ‘I can’t believe you did that,’ I said to her. ‘Well, I did try nominating you for the stupidity award, but there wasn’t one,’ she chuckled.
Last October, Greg and I went to Government House, along with a group of amazing other life savers. I took the opportunity to thank all the amazing staff in the burns unit who helped us. I’m still receiving laser treatment on my injuries. They call me their miracle patient after everything I survived. Greg calls me his hero. But if we hadn’t been so foolish, we wouldn’t be in this situation.
Recently, I decided to put on some shorts.‘Is it alright to go out in public like this or does it look gross?’ I asked Reeanne. ‘Oh Mum, you’ve never been one to worry about what people think, don’t start now,’ she said. She was right, if people looked, they looked. I’m so lucky it wasn’t worse.Now I’m urging people to throw away wood if it doesn’t light, and never use petrol on a fire. Don’t make our mistake. We’re grateful to be here.
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