Miracle man survives explosion and fire that burned 95% of his body, gives glory to God

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By Mark Ellis

Billy Jack McDaniel, 2013
Billy Jack McDaniel, 2013

Billy Jack McDaniel knew the risks of work on drilling rigs. Injuries and death in the oil field are common, mostly due to human error. But when a pressure seal on his rig failed, which allowed natural gas to escape,  he came face-to-face with eternity in a horrific explosion and fire.

“It didn’t take much to ignite,” recalls McDaniel, who found himself 150 feet high on a maintenance platform when the rig exploded. “I watched the fire. It came and got me. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run.”

His body ignited like a marshmallow too-close to an open flame. But this was no Boy Scout campfire. McDaniel found himself seared by 2,000-degree temperatures. Usually, people’s eyes melt at 1,200 degrees.

“The pain was intense, but there was no escaping it,” he says. “It was constant, like hell.”

As he watched his clothes quickly burn away, his skin bubble, and a sensitive body part catch fire “like a candle,” he panicked. “I wanted to fall and die when the fire went out. I welcomed death.”

From McDaniel’s training as a volunteer firefighter, he knew what awaited such a severe burn. He knew he would stop breathing at any moment. He realized he was at death’s doorstep. McDaniel contemplated throwing himself off the platform in a suicide dive.

As soon as the fire went out, driller Billy Humble clambered up a metal ladder to the platform, shooting past multiple rungs at a time to reach his friend and co-worker.

When McDaniel saw him, he was able to moan, “Promise me you’ll take care of my wife and child.”

Billy Humble nodded and said, “Yes, I will.”

McDaniel was surprised when Humble suggested they pray, because Humble was not a church-going man.

A basket was raised up to the platform, and McDaniel was able to crawl into it by himself. “Nobody could touch me,” he notes. “If they tried to touch me, skin and meat would have pulled off.”

Most of his skin was burned off. Bone was exposed on his fingers, arms, chin and jaw.

When the basket reached the ground, onlookers were stunned when McDaniel raised himself up and walked out. “My body was pouring fluid so I was thirsty. I started to go to the drilling house to get a drink of water.”

“Stop! Lay down!” someone shouted. He sat down in the dirt, and then he was placed on a gurney made from chicken wire.

When the ambulance arrived, people were again shocked when McDaniel stood up, stepped over to the vehicle, and laid himself down inside.

“I need you to call a few people,” he told the nurse. He finally passed out when the ambulance hit a speed bump at the entry to the hospital.

After the explosion, rig manager Bob Quick went to the McDaniel home to inform Aleta, Billy Jack’s wife. “You think about that knock on the door or call in the middle of the night,” Aleta says. “But God had been preparing me for that exact moment for two years.”

Aleta says God gave her a series of dreams that featured the dreaded knock. “Bob would be standing at my door in the middle of the night and say something happened to Jack,” she says.

Due to her dreams, she felt more prepared to handle the shock. When Aleta arrived at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, she was informed by Dr. Kevin Sittig, director of the regional burn center, that there was a low probability of survival for her husband.

“Do you believe in God?” she asked Dr. Sittig.

“Yes, I do,” Dr. Sittig replied.

“Do you believe He still performs miracles?”

“I do,” he said.

“God and I had a conversation on the way here,” Aleta told the doctor. “He told me he will deliver my husband alive. I’m not going to take anything less than 100 percent,” she said with assurance.

“I’ll be praying right along with you. I’m not trying to be the bearer of bad news here. I’m just trying to give you a realistic picture of the challenges ahead. There is a greater medical probability he will not survive,” Dr. Sittig said.

“However, if God wants him to live, he will live. If God wants him to die, he will die,” he added.

Dr. Kevin Sittig
Dr. Kevin Sittig

Dr. Sittig was raised Catholic and spent 12 years in parochial school. He remains actively involved in his church. “When I get burns of this magnitude, the first place I go is right around the corner from the burn unit – the chapel,” he notes. “I spend a great deal of time in that chapel.”

“I’m not able to make a decision on who will live and who will die,” Dr. Sittig says. “That’s why I put it in the Lord’s hands. I’m one of the Lord’s tools.”

There were no available beds in the ICU burn unit, so McDaniel was left in the hall near the nurse’s station for 72 hours. “They thought he would die,” Aleta maintains. “They thought it was a waste of time.”

Dr. Sittig has a slightly different recollection of the initial prognosis. “I don’t recall saying there is no way Billy Jack will survive,” he says. “I will venture to say, that probably, the vast majority of burn units would calculate his mortality rate and would give him comfort care only.”

“Parts of his body were so badly burned, that to a lay person, anybody would say there is no way in hell this man will survive.”

When McDaniel confounded expectations and continued to live, he had the first of 115 surgeries and 80 blood transfusions.

McDaniel woke up in ICU two weeks after the accident, when he came out of an induced coma. He panicked because the room was dimly lit, and his eyes had been sewn shut. “When you wake up and you can’t open your eyes, it scares you to death,” he says.

He takes comfort knowing the Apostle Paul was once blinded, and when Paul and others in the Bible emerged from darkness, they were refined.

Before the accident, McDaniel was a “run-of-the-mill” Christian who attended church, but lacked passion for God. Now, as he awakened from the coma after two weeks, he had a heart-to-heart with God.

“I can’t do this,” he told God. “I’m ready to die.”

You don’t have toIf you let Me, I will carry you, God impressed on his heart.

When McDaniel first saw himself in the mirror, it was startling. “I saw a monster,” he recalls. “There was nothing to identify myself. There

Before the accident, Billy Jack (left) with wife, Aleta, at dedication of their daughter, Carney
Before the accident, Billy Jack (left) with wife, Aleta, at dedication of their daughter, Carney

was nothing of me there.”

His six-year-old came to visit a week later. “Daddy, you still look real good,” she said. “You can’t quit Daddy.”

Initially, McDaniel’s family was told he could be in the hospital as long as three years. But he walked out after four months and 17 days, carrying 80 pounds on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. Before the accident, he weighed 240.

“There may be one person a year burned over 75 percent of their body and lives,” McDaniel notes. “There may be one person in a lifetime burned over 95 percent of their body and lives. But there is only one in the history of the world burned 95 percent who still has functionality. I am the one.”

Today, McDaniel is often invited to conferences featuring burn specialists. “I’m a spectacle for the burn doctors. They can’t explain why I lived,” he adds.

His eyes should have melted at 1,200 degrees, but they’re perfect, as clear as crystal. The inside of his nose, mouth, and lungs were not burned. His heart, liver, and kidneys never gave out. Even though his scalp was removed and re-grafted 13 times, his hair is thicker now than it was before the accident. His ears fell off in the hospital, but they are growing back.

“Today I was on my tractor. I can hunt and fish and make love to my wife,” he says. “I live my life just like everybody.”

When McDaniel considers that aluminum melted on the drilling rig in an area above his position on the platform, he has only one answer. “There is no medical or scientific explanation. It was a miracle. That’s the only thing it can be.”

After he first got home from the hospital, McDaniel had a rough bout with suicidal despair. “My hell didn’t start until I got home, because there is no help,” he recalls. “I could do nothing. There was nothing to wake up for. I was junk.”

One day, three months after his homecoming, he passed through a deep, dark valley. “I was waiting for my wife to leave so I could kill myself,” he recounts. Even though he was slowly improving, he couldn’t see the progress himself. Despondent, he picked up his Bible and it fell open to Luke, chapter 23, which tells about the crucifixion of Jesus.

“When Jesus was on the cross, He felt everyone’s pain, sorrow, and sin at one time. He did it as a man. He didn’t do it as God.”

McDaniel had a startling realization. Just my pain would have killed Him, he thought. If Jesus could take it as a man, then I need to shut up, get up, and get going.

“Living with scars is hard,” he says. “If I go into Wal-Mart, I get stares. If I go out to eat, little kids get scared.”

bookcover
bookcover

But when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, they too were frightened. He showed them the scars on His hands and feet to prove He was alive.

“I use my scars to prove what Jesus has done for me.”

 

Billy Jack and Aleta McDaniel are the authors of Dead Man Breathing. They have been married 15 years and have a beautiful daughter, Carney. They often share their story with churches and other groups. They also started a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the importance of personal and workplace safety. They live in the high country of North Carolina.

17 COMMENTS

  1. If God Is with you, who can be against you? Who
    This miracle is proof that trusting In God Is
    rewarding, new beginning, stronger Faith ! God Bless !

  2. I turned on the TV and I hear of trdegies, I open the papers and I read of pain and deaths, the all this darkness, reading this is light a light at the end of a tunnel, how can a dead man breathe, with such degree of burns was dead. I read it with tears filled in my eyes, I can’t but wonder what a mighty God we serve. His experience must not be a waste he must shout at the roof tops and tell everybody, because many experience quarter of pain in life and choose suicide and choose death and choose despair. If I am not inspired then nothing will.

  3. I was burned in July 1999. The night before I was released from 2 months in a burn center ICU I was introduced to the local burn survivors group as the worst burnt person, who had lived, that my head nurse had cared for in her 29 years as a burn nurse. Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, San Bernardino / Colton California. Since then at a http://www.simplythestory.org workshop where maybe 30 people were present, I met two others who were burnt worse than I was. One is blind and had toes put on his hands, the other has no arms. I found it very interesting that all three of us were there at the same time. I lost a third of my lungs, part of my jaw, a pina, half my teeth, my lips and the surgeon who operated on my eyes was amazed that I could see. Interesting, last week, I went to see a surgeon about surgery for my hand and mouth for the first time since I left the burn center. I did my own self care at home, except my 14 year old daughter and classmates changed my bandages daily after school. At times I felt like a high school girl’s private course in male anatomy. Today everything functions, but drugs have messed with my mind. The hospital psychiatrist diagnosed me as suicidal and depressed and filled me with psychotics that greatly affected me and destroyed my short term memory. They were supposed to make me forget the terror of being burned but I had no terror. Now, I don’t know if my memory problem is still drug related or just aging as I am now 67. For a while after I was burned I would not remember where I was going or why. I was told that I would not be able to dress myself for 6 months or work for two years but when we ran out of money I was doing everything I could even mowing lawns. We never missed a meal even though Social Security denied my claim. I was not up to fighting them so I didn’t. Six months after leaving the burn center I fought with my family to get a driver’s license. They said I was too weak to drive a car. I had a friend take me to take the road test in his car. I asked so many questions about the road test that the supervisor told my tester that I had already passed the test, so I never had to take it. At that time I still had bandages on my hands and head and was wearing a mask and jobst garments. For the first week I was in the burn center, the doctors said no way I could live. On the seventh day I started breathing. That day, the doctors told my family that I would be blind. My family asked why they had not been told that sooner. The doctor replied, “Dead men do not need eyes.” I am delighted to say that by God’s grace I am a dead man walking and a blind man seeing. During that first week I heard my family plan my funeral and burial. I knew I was in the wrong hospital as I had been told after I rescued myself from the fire and called 911 on a spectator owned cell phone that I was going to be flown to Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. Apparently they refused me as being too far gone. Apart from the psychiatrist, I got great care at Arrowhead even if they did keep me tied to the bed… This was because even unconscious I was trying to escape as I though in my drug induced coma that I was being kept alive as a donor organ warehouse … when matching needy folks were found – I would have my organs harvested. I did injure myself several times in my escape attempts. I regained consciousness the last time when I yanked out my NG feeding tube. My stomach acids so burned my sinuses that the pain over came the drugs. I refused to let them reinsert it or put me back to sleep. My new life started that day. My wife was wonderful and in my first two weeks which were critical, two of my children were with me 24/7. The oldest daughter was a chatterbox and nurses told me that she talked to me her every waking hour. My youngest boy (we have 7 children) read to me from the New Testament and from my boyhood hero Richard Halliburton who was a crazy adventurer/photo-journalist who I emulated and did some similar things myself as an adventurer and photo journalist. From the time that the Paramedics I called cut my clothes off till that last night in the burn center I was naked and for most of the next two months as I did not want anything touching my new skin. That last night in the burn center my head nurse came into my room pushing a wheel chair and had something in her hands. After I determined it wasn’t another needle I relaxed. She pulled my legs off the bed and held up a pair of boxer shorts saying, “No free show for strangers.” She pulled them up my legs and over my butt and put me into the wheel chair. (I had lost over 60 pounds in those 2 months.) Twice before I had been denied permission to attend the burn meetings as they said there was too much risk of infection. I had been denied that time also, but I made a strong argument that I was leaving ICU and going home the next day. That must have changed their mind. I was very glad as it was the first time I had a chance to ask the burn surgeon questions. I went to many meetings after that but never again was there a doctor present. As for the promised infections … Yep I got them … Once I had 4 different kinds at once growing on my raw scalp. None of the scalp skin grafts took. From ICU, I was supposed to go to a skilled nursing center for 6 months but I refused as I remembered being tied to that bed and begging for my glasses so I could see. No way was I wanting to go to another “medical prison”. I was a nursing student before the gasoline fire and so I felt I could manage my own care. One challenge was giving my self shots in my belly three times a day using bandaged hands and fingers that did not bend. Those shots were for the blood clots I had gotten my my legs when they were tied to the bed. My fire was hot enough that my glasses melted on my face. I was knocked unconscious by the explosion and stayed that way while 25% of my body charred. Regaining consciousness, I found my feet trapped in sheet metal and finally I got free. Even though I was engulfed in flames and the fire was ferocious, I never saw the flames or felt the heat. I never felt any pain because I had been so badly burned while unconscious that the nerves were dead. I walked out and rolled in the grass and started a grass fire. Finally someone smothered my flames with a ladies coat. I asked if anyone had called the 911. Silence. I borrowed a phone and called. I asked if anyone had reported the fire there on the beach at Lake Elsinore. Yes, 20 or 30 calls. I was about to hang up when I asked did anyone report a personal injury … silence then a gentle question, ?Was anyone hurt? Yes Ma’am, I am burned inside and out. “We will send the paramedics.” As I made the call, I heard the fire trucks and saw their flashing lights as they were still on the other side of the lake coming my way. I was told came from Wood Village 12-15 minutes away. I began thinking about first aid for pain and asked where some water was. I was told that south of our present location there was an irrigation system going. I climbed two fences and with wasted hands managed to get a sprinkler head off a inch and a half to two inch diameter hose. I started a stream of water on me and till this point in time, I ignorantly thought I was going to go to the hospital and get some bandages and sleep in my own bed that night. But as I saw my skin roll off of me like wet wadded up toilet paper … I knew I was in serious trouble. The paramedics arrived maybe 10 minutes after the fireman. I heard them both arrive as sound traveled well across the lake. Soon I heard, “No burn victim here, we are leaving”. I called 911 a second time and told them where I was. Soon the paramedics arrived carrying a stokes basket. I think I heard them say my body temp was 85 or 87. I knew that if that was true I should not be rational. The paramedics wanted to put me in their Stoke’s basket and carry me back. I refused. They wanted to argue so I started back without them and they followed and helped me back over the fences. Getting to their rescue vehicle, they put me on a stainless steel table and were about to cut my clothes off. I stopped them and started taking off my shoes and socks as they were insistent that they needed to see all of me. As soon as I had those and my belt off, they used their HUGE pair of scissors and cut off all my clothes. Then, they left me naked and shivering on that cold table while they were outside talking on their radios. A spectator covered me with her sheet blanket. I decided that if my body temp was so cold that I needed to shiver as much and as hard as possible to warm myself up. Soon the paramedics were back in wanting to sedate me and insert an airway. I insisted that they call my wife. They refused. Finally the helicopter was overhead and one wrote my phone number on his hand saying he would call. I let them sedate me and insert the airway. I was told that airway had locked in my throat and would not come out for two weeks. I think that without it I would have died.
    Arriving at the burn center hospital, I went through 6 hours of emergency surgery and was being wheeled out to the burn center when I regained consciousness and thought I heard my wife arrive at the elevator as I was pushed past. She had not heard about the fire until the wee hours of the morning. They had called every burn center in Southern California twice … no one admitted having me. Finally they located the air ambulance service and was told that they had taken me to Arrowhead. Calling Arrowhead a third time, my family told them I was there. Twenty minutes later Arrowhead called back and said they had a John Doe who might be the one they were looking for. IF they wanted to see me they needed to hurry. About two hours later after I was settled in the burn center ICU, my wife was allowed in and she identified me by my feet. I have massaged her feet many, many times but just looking at them … WOW. I do have BIG feet, I also have red hair. A week later I started breathing and 3 or 4 days after that lots of surgery was done on me. then 3 or 4 days after that the rest of the surgery was done on me. I got 23 blood transfusions. I never had any other surgery done except twice a plastic surgeon after I left the burn center cut gangrene off my ear. After she failed twice to stop the gangrene, I did it myself the third time … with my almost totally useless hands. Once walking in front of the house, I fell. I did not have on my bandages. I saw that my palm had come loose from the hand. I rinsed it off and taped it back on. For about a year, I did not have fingerprints but they came back even though that hand skin was off my legs and butt. Over the next months I smoothed my face and hand skin grafts with razors. I used very hot water to mask the pain and wash away the blood.
    Many times folks do not see that I was burned but ask because they were told. I take of my glasses or roll up my long sleeves and then they see the skin grafts. Just before the fire, I felt compelled to put on 3 shirts. Two were turtle necks with roll over sleeves and collars. I have an area around my neck and my wrists that did not need skin grafts because of the extra layers of fabric. I want to thank a nurse named Linda who I have never been able to locate but that first night she spent hours long after her shift ended and sucked lots of garbage out of my lungs. I think of her as an angel. My wife says that what she took out was nasty nasty nasty. Several times while in ICU I got pneumonia. My daughter-in-law a Navy Nurse practitioner caught it first two times. I also want to thank a young social worker who was doing an exit interview of me the day before my release and she decided that my diagnosis of being depressed and suicidal was wrong. She fetched her supervisor and together they returned and chatted with me. I realized something was strange. They told me about my situation and I was ticked. I asked what they thought. The older lady said, Mr. Mc Knight, I think that if you got a truckload of lemons dumped on you that by the end of the day you would be in the lemonade business. They immediately had the psyche meds stopped. The mental damage had already been done. My wife was the first to notice that I no longer thought the same way. I used to be a multi-tasker and could run my business affairs mentally. That had included a 4000 square foot computer store that fed 28 people. For a while, I figured that my lack of short term memory was caused by roasting my head. Now I know that it was the drugs. Before I left the burn center, I sadly discovered I was impotent. Now … that did depress me. I was thinking our sex life was over. I told my wife about it and she LAUGHED! Seeing the look of distress on my face she quickly said, “After all that you have been through … you are worried about that? You wait .. in 30 days you will be as you were before.” Well, 30 days, 60, 90 even 120 days went by and I was not like before. Finally on the very morning that we had a urologist appointment, with lots of special effort, we got a bit of action/growth, but I felt internal ripping and tearing … like maybe scar tissue was ripping. It hurt. Later my daughter told me, that twice while I was there in ICU and my hands not being tied, that I had ripped out my catheter and had spurted blood. That explained everything. I also went through drug withdrawal cold turkey not knowing what was happening … I called the burn center with my symptoms and was told that it was probably morphine withdrawal. Last Thursdays 14 years later I went to see the hand surgeon because I had roofed a building and weeks later my hand was still stiff. I wanted some z cuts to allow more skin to grow so I could bend my fingers more. The hand surgeon said he was amazed my hands looked so good. He said there was little he could do except for the thumb and I wasn’t concerned about the thumb. He also said that he could do little for my mouth. It was a year after the fire that I could finally open my mouth enough for a dentist to pull my burnt teeth. I am still wearing the temporary denture they gave me but I need a new one as it broke into two parts. That and hearing aids are on my to do list as I earn the money. Thank you for reading my story. I love to help others in distress. Getting burned was one of the best things that every happened to me. It gave me compassion for others who were hurting and it showed me that I could live on less and that as I trusted God he would provide all our needs. on skype I am bob.mc.knight. I have done lots of disaster relief work in the USA and I was one of the few westerners allowed to take part in the relief effort for the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. 90,000 died or are still missing and 10 MILLION were homeless. I was already in China at the time and ended up staying 6 months. Since then I have also spent 6 months in south India. God is good. God has always been very good. I love Jesus.

  4. I am so happy you lived. Praise Jesus! Ask Jesus to give you back your short term memory Bob. The devil stole it from you through the drugs, but Jesus wants to restore it for you. Sixty seven is way too young to consider yourself eligible for a bad memory!! Try in another 20 years maybe. What God starts He finishes, He has left you that one problem for you to exercise your faith in getting it fixed. Amen. We should do all we can to saving people from the Lake of Fire that burns with sulfur-that is eternal suffering! Their spiritual body (immortal body, which is identical to our physical one) will feel the pain and suffering but not be able to die. It is too horrible to think about, yet people all around are going there. “The way of the wise is above that he may escape hell beneath.” (Proverbs.)
    Praise Jesus for saving me, I am so grateful. I love your testimony brother, I’ll keep it and share it.

      • LAST PS: I wish I had money I could send you, you surely are worthy of ALL the support your bros & sisters in Christ can give! I live on a moderate income week to week. Why dont some of you readers club together and send Bob some money? I know he’d likely be embarrassed at the suggestion..but if we could all send maybe even only five dollars??

  5. Thank you SO MUCH, Billy Jack and Bob, for sharing your testimonies of how God brought you through such a horrible time in your lives! Your “can-do” attitudes are amazing and so appreciated! Our Father loves us far more than we sometimes realize. Should you be interested in additional faith-building testimonies of how God healed very serious injuries, go to http://tlsm.org/, click on “Watch and Listen,” go to “Start Here Teachings,” and click on “God’s Power.”

  6. I’m desperate for a miracle! I’m desperate for a miracle I was in a fire 4 years ago and the scaring that covers my entire right thigh horrible awful gross! I have done everything from praying for myself, asking God to remove the scars and restore my normal pretty skin to speaking to the scar to leave my body etc and still my skin is awful! I use to get compliments on my legs, wear shorts, be in the sun beach pool tan NO MORE I have been destroyed from this. My life I can’t do and live like I use to and do things I use to or wear clothes I want. I’m in bondage I hate mu skin and looking at me legs. My modeling career is even over! Please please help me I need a new miracle my skin normal not one scar Mark at all on me. I didn’t deserve this in angry I never been so angry and suffer for 4 years that

  7. Explain this. God does a miracle to save him, you say, but where was God when the fire happened? If you were God wouldn’t you have simply prevented the fire? Where was God for all the many who don’t live or have much poorer outcomes? Anyway you slice it, at BEST God chooses to save a few and lets tmany others suffer and die in agony. Mysterious ways? Yes, very mysterious.

    • You don’t believe in God? Just say it! I’ve had my thoughts about he’s real or not. I’ve looked at the history of earth and wondered. In the end, I do believe in God and Jesus Christ, our lord! I BELIEVE!

  8. God uses things like that to break someone down and make them humble to his word that’s where God was when the fire started God use that to get his attention to strengthen his faith and his trust in him who are you to say God is a bad guy that’s what you’re saying when you say where was God when the fire started that’s where God was he use that fire to get someone’s attention to show what he can and will do don’t ever say you something else like that again I happen to be a Christian and my God’s a good God he was there for Billy Jack don’t ever say something like that again it’s like what Billy Jackson he should have been blinded but God let him keep his eyesight the man walked and lived his life pretty much normal so yes God was there with the fire shame on you

  9. Being Thankful To God for being set on fire makes absolutely no sense. As for Emily’s comment of “who are you to say God is a bad guy”, well I am a normal thinking person who sees such suffering caused or allowed by God which means God is a bad guy. No amount of twisting or double talk will change that. Believe what you want, but what you are believing is illogical.

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