“Growing up, I was always a seeker and lived for adventure. During my senior year of high school, I realized I wanted to go into law-enforcement. I graduated college in 2013 from the University of Washington after receiving a degree in business. From there I started focusing on becoming a police officer. I loved the thought of having a job packed with adventure and having something new happen every day. I went through the police Academy And was hired by a local department to be a reserve officer. A reserve officer Is a volunteer position where are you are a fully certified police officer but on a volunteer basis and on your own schedule more or less. I decided to do this until I could work into a full-time position. In the meantime to pay the bills, I applied for a wildland firefighter position within the US forest service and was immediately hired.
For a short while in my mid 20s, I was living the dream. I got to work on the weekdays as a wildland firefighter and travel the country and go home on the weekends and work as a police officer. For me it was an amazing combination of careers.
But on August 19 all of that changed. I remember being dispatched to a fire in a rural part of Washington state. I ended up linking up with a different fire engine than I normally work with. There were four of us on board including myself. We were attempting to save several houses up a dead-end road from a wild fire that had started. But mother nature had different plans for us. The winds picked up and the fire erupted. It sounded like a freight train coming up the hill towards us. Complete trees were fully engulfed in the raging inferno. We Immediately tried to evacuate which meant having to drive back down the road which was fully overtaken by the fire. There was really no other choice. In the midst of the chaos our engine crashed into a ravine. We were completely surrounded by fire at that point. I swung open my door and began to run. I was completely on fire and being burned alive. When I finally broke out of the fire I turned around and saw that my crew mates were not behind me. I realized immediately they did not make it out. That is something that will never leave my mind.
When we crashed, it was really abrupt. The engine came to such a sudden stop and I knew there was no getting the engine out of the ravine. Considering there was fire everywhere, I knew I either had to attempt to run or simply die right there. At that very second, my body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism kicked in. As soon as I stepped out of that truck, I was on fire. I wasn’t blinded by smoke, but pure flame. As wildland firefighters, we wear this clothing called Nomex. It’s supposed to be somewhat fire resistant but on that day it didn’t do much. My clothing basically burned off. When I got to the bottom of the road and broke out of the flames, I saw there was a wall of flames behind me. The forest was engulfed in flames and I was screaming to other firefighters that we had guys trapped in the blaze. I immediately had other firefighters begin to help me. They began to cut off my clothes and prepare me to get into an ambulance. I remember running up to one of the fire engines to look at myself in the mirror but a firefighter pulled me away. They wouldn’t allow me to look at myself. I knew right then it must have been bad. They unlaced my boots and set them to the side in the grass. I remember that very distinctly because they were still smoldering and smoking.
Suddenly I remember becoming very cold. I thought it was odd because it was really hot that day and I had just run through fire. It suddenly clicked that I was setting into shock. By that time, I was put into a fire engine and driven down the road and away from the fire. We met up with an ambulance and they put me on a stretcher. I asked repeatedly ‘am I going to die’ and begged them repeatedly to ‘please pray for me.’ Believe it or not, I was still able to bust out a joke even in the midst of all the chaos. The medic asked me if I was allergic to anything and I said, ‘yea, fire.’ Soon after that, it all went black.
I woke up about a month later in Seattle Washington at a well-known burn center. I looked down at my body and everything hurt. I was completely wrapped like a mummy and realized all but one of my fingertips had been amputated. I was burned about 70% 3rd degree. Waking up wasn’t what most people would expect. It wasn’t like I just sprang up one day and opened my eyes. The whole process happened over several days. I remember seeing the story on the news and the constant story headlines of ‘three firefighters killed, one still hospitalized.’ It’s a weird feeling knowing that the ‘one hospitalized’ is yourself.
The slow process of recovery began. To be honest, being in the coma was the easiest part of the whole process. Once you wake up, a living hell begins. Being in a burn unit is one of the worst possible places a human can be. You have to go through constant wound care, constant surgeries, and an insane amount of pain, and of course on top of all of it the thoughts of my buddies always lingered.
I began getting a ton of mail everyday, and I mean a TON! I remember becoming friends with the mailman of the hospital. He would hand deliver mail to me everyday and I began really looking forward to it. One day he shared his own personal story with me of a brain injury he had received while biking. I felt like we really connected. At one point he said in all the years he had worked there, ‘no one had ever received this much mail.’ It was incredible getting mail and support from around the world. People from all walks of life, colors, and religions were praying for me. To this day, I can honestly say those prayers worked and have gotten me to where I am today.
Finally after several weeks I had a turning point. In the morning, a physical therapist would come into my room and help me get dressed, brush my teeth, and then we would walk to the end of the hall where there is a giant room with exercise equipment. I remember begging them to not make me walk, but they would always make me walk and told me I needed it. It was a very weird point in my life because I went from being in amazing physical shape a few weeks before, to skin and bones and begging people to not make me walk. So one day when I was painfully staggering down the hall with my physical therapist, I begin to notice almost every room except for mine had a wheelchair next to their door. I suddenly became very angry that everyone else got to use a wheelchair except me. I told the therapist ‘Hey how come everyone else on this floor is able to have a wheelchair except for me? How come you don’t make them walk?’ The next words out of the therapist’s mouth changed me forever. She looked at me and said ‘because Daniel, most of these people will never walk again.’ Many of those people in the wheelchairs had brain injuries, paralysis, and other major problems. I suddenly realized that even though it was extremely painful, I was actually able to walk and sadly these other people weren’t. From that day on I don’t think I complained again and I begin looking at the glass is half full rather than half empty.
Finally after three months in the burn unit, I was released. I moved to Montana where my parents live to begin recovering on my own outside the hospital. For the last three years I have dedicated my life to getting better. I have an extremely extensive list of therapy appointments I go to every day. Each one of those appointments has gotten me better in a different aspect. At this point I’ve lost count of how many surgeries I’ve had but I believe it’s close to 30. There have been many days where I’ve been in an insane amount of pain and many nights where I cried myself to sleep. But, there have been many more days where I realized I have been blessed with a second chance at life. The first year of recovery was extremely rough but the last two years I have been extremely motivated. I am constantly getting better and now live life to its fullest. I have three of my brothers who didn’t make it out of the fire and I know they are looking down on me. They are my motivation. Since I was given a second chance at life I want to be sure I make my brothers proud. I want them to be able to look down on me and say ‘great job Daniel, you’re doing great ‘
My ultimate goal is to go back to being a police officer and serve my community. I’ve learned of the toughest obstacles to overcome are the ones you create in your mind. They are not the physical obstacles. When you break those mental barriers, you can truly achieve anything. I realize that when many people look at me and see my amputated finger tips, my burned skin, and massive amounts of scars and then I tell them I want to be a police officer again, they look at me like I’m crazy. Some of them have basically flat out told me I’m crazy. But the more they say that, the more it motivates me. I take that negative energy and I turn it into positive energy so I can prove them wrong. I’ve learned in life that many people are going to doubt you and tell you it can’t be done, but I want people to use that as their motivation. Prove them wrong and prove to yourself you can do anything you set your mind to.”
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