Fire: A Survivor's Story

Photo of Rebekah Johnson smiling and showing off her burn scars

When Rebekah Brewster Johnson headed to bed the evening of May 5, 2002, she was unaware that within hours she'd be fighting for her life.

Rebekah, then 27-years-old and a biology major at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, was working her way through school. After work, she headed home to spend some time with friends in the rental home they shared together, and then went to bed. The next thing Rebekah remembers is waking up "… literally on fire," she remembers. "My clothing and my skin were burning."

Her immediate instinct was to run. She jumped from her bed and headed for the front door of the home. "When I got outside I instantly remembered what I was taught as a child and stopped, dropped and rolled until the flames were out," she says.

Rebekah was safe, but she didn't know if her roommates were still inside the burning house. So, she ran back inside to find her friends and their pets. But the fire was growing fast and Rebekah, confused from smoke inhalation and fighting for a breath of air, tripped in the darkness of the thick black smoke.

Then the windows of the house started to explode from the heat. "I felt like this was it for me," she recalls. "I couldn't see a thing but suddenly saw a glimmer of light through the smoke, which was the front door I had left open." She headed toward the light and staggered out onto the lawn.

Get Down, Get Out, Stay Out

Rebekah was quite fortunate to have survived after reentering a burning building. Fire experts agree with the safety slogan, "Get Down, Get Out, Stay Out," encouraging people to escape a burning building as quickly as possible and then wait for firefighters to assure that everyone else is safely out of the building.

"Often family members have escaped from another route and - in the confusion of the fire - they do not see their loved ones and pets are also already outside and safe," says UL Fire Safety Research Director Steve Kerber. "It's important for families to have an escape plan which includes a designated meeting point. We also strongly encourage people to close the door on their way out to help slow the growth of the fire."

After Rebekah was outside, several young boys found a sheet to wrap around her burned skin as she watched her home and all she owned burn.

"It all happened so fast," she said. "Almost immediately, the first responders arrived and started working to contain the fire."

Paramedics tended to Rebekah's severe burns and rushed her to the hospital. Rebekah's condition was severe, and she was fighting for her life as the ambulance sped to UF Health Shands Hospital, in Gainesville.

"I truly believe my paramedic, Joey Malphurs, saved my life," said Rebekah. "I was struggling to breathe and in excruciating pain, but he was able to keep me alive until I got to the emergency room."

For the next six weeks, Rebekah went through multiple painful treatments as the nurses and doctors worked to heal the third-degree burns over 47-percent of her body.

"My recovery was slow. Just getting out of bed was a major accomplishment," she explains. "I had to take things in small baby steps. I will never forget my doctors or nurses at Shands- they too saved my life."

Check Smoke Alarms Now

"The cause of the fire was an electrical outlet next to Rebekah's bed that sparked due to what most likely was a wiring problem. The spark ignited her headboard and bedding and the fire spread quickly," said Fire Chief Larry Stewart.

The investigation that followed the fire found that none of the smoke alarms in the home had batteries. Rebekah speculated that someone had probably removed the batteries to quiet the alarms after food had been overcooked in the kitchen, or maybe needed batteries for the remote control.

Smoke alarms with dead or missing batteries account for a significant number of fire tragedies, with the National Fire Protection Agency stating that 46-percent of non-working smoke alarms are due to missing or disconnected batteries.

David Mills, UL Principal Engineer for Initiative and Indicating Devices said, "UL's smoke alarm standard specifically states that alarms should be tested monthly. And the revised UL Standard 217 specifically tests for alarm sensitivity during cooking to try to prevent alarms going off during common kitchen activities such as broiling steak, for example, which can lead to smoke alarm batteries being removed and not replaced."

Life After the Fire

Rebekah had to start her life over completely.

"I didn't even have a toothbrush," she recalls.

Since the fire, she has had 21 surgeries to repair the burn damage to her skin. The fire and subsequent long recovery put a halt to her college goals. However, fate took her down another path which led her to her life's passion. Rebekah is now an advocate for other fire survivors.

"I was invited to attend Camp Amigo, in Cape San Blas, Florida, for children with burn injuries," Rebekah says. "It was there that I saw the silver lining to my injuries because I felt empowered to help others through my own experience."

She became an active member of the Phoenix Burn Society , an organization that supports burn survivors and has worked to change state legislature to improve fire safety in homes by using better building materials. She is also a strong advocate for using smoke alarms.

Ironically, unrelated to her own experience, Rebekah met and married Steve Johnson, a firefighter for the Marion County Fire Department -the two seemed destined to be together. They frequently speak at schools, community events and regulatory meetings as advocates for fire safety. They have two children; Ryan, age seven and Madison, age six.

"As parents, and especially considering Rebekah's experience, we take fire safety quite seriously," says Steve. "I even check smoke alarms in the homes of our children's friends before we drop them off for play times or sleepovers."

"It may seem a little obsessive," Rebekah adds with a laugh, "but the parents do appreciate a professional firefighter checking out their smoke alarms."

And ever since their children could walk, the family has also practiced their fire escape plan.

"If the house is on fire, we go outside and wait by the mailbox," said Madison. "Even if Mommy or Daddy is not there," added her brother Ryan.

Sitting on the sofa of her home, her children by her side, Rebekah wears a sundress with spaghetti straps, confidently displaying multiple scars left behind from her experience.

"We all have scars, most keep them hidden, but you can see mine. I show them with pride because it helps others who have gone through something similar, or perhaps it may help prevent something like this from happening to others. I don't ever want me or anyone to have to escape a burning building again."