MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (AP) — Even while Brian Stafford was lying on a stretcher in an Air Evac helicopter, heading to Vanderbilt Hospital to be treated for extensive burns, he never lost faith nor the desire to one day return to being a firefighter.
Stafford had severe burns to 40 percent of his body — low back, head, ears, left wrist and right hand. He sustained the injuries while battling a fire the morning of May 21, 2008.
"It was the worst kind of burn; it hurt, but I was almost numb because it had burned so many nerves," Stafford said. "Laying there, waiting to get to the hospital, all I could think about was my family (my wife and two sons).
"I never lost faith," he said. "I had faith that God would see me through it. I knew it was serious, but I knew God was going to give me the strength I needed to get through it."
Stafford's injuries did not include smoke inhalation or scorching to his lungs, some of the most common injuries sustained in a house fire.
His right hand was another story.
"It had swollen to the point where I (lost) circulation it in. I knew it was bad, and I was afraid I would lose my hand," Stafford said.
"I came off the helicopter and went right into surgery. I told the doctor before I went into surgery I just wanted to be able to throw a baseball and play sports with my sons again."
After a month at Vanderbilt, several surgeries and countless trips back and forth for therapy, Stafford was finally able to stay at home and do therapy at North Alabama Bone and Joint Clinic.
About five months after the incident, he was able to return to light duty for a year. Then eight months later, he passed the necessary testing and was returned to full duty.
"I never thought about not going back to the department and being a fireman again," Stafford said. "I guess being a fireman is something I was supposed to do, something I wanted to do for a long time."
He grew up playing sports, then became a volunteer firefighter at Killen.
"I remember when I was a kid, my favorite show was 'Rescue 911.' I never knew then I would be doing it for a living," he said with a laugh.
Muscle Shoals Fire Chief Tim McMullins said Stafford is an exceptional firefighter and person.
"I don't think not coming back to the department was ever an option in Brian's mind," the chief said. "Honestly, after going through what he did, I don't know if I could have come back like he did.
"I'm glad he did because he is a positive influence on the members of our department, and is an exceptional young man."
The 37-year-old Stafford and other firefighters answered a call to a house fire and got caught in a "flashover."
Stafford and firefighter Bobby Isbell were the first on the scene, and immediately entered the house.
"We were making a push on the fire, trying to get it under control. Bobby went down a hallway and was needing some more hose. As I was dragging it, my glove came off and I never picked it up," Stafford said.
Stafford said as he was trying to get more hose to Isbell, he could feel the heat getting more intense.
He estimated the temperatures were 1,800 to 2,000 degrees inside the house.
"The gases coming from the flames, along with the smoke (which is fuel for the fire), combined to cause a flashover," he said.
Fire officials said a flashover is the near-simultaneous ignition of most of the directly exposed combustible material in an enclosed area.
"Bobby (Isbell) was in the hallway and I was in the living room," Stafford said. "I was between the fire and the front door, which was open. The fire follows a flow path trying to get to the oxygen. The fire was trying to get to that opened door."
He said Isbell was trying to cool down the fire when suddenly there was a big fireball.
"(Bobby) saw it and dropped to the floor and opened the nozzle of the hose to cover himself. He still received some minor burns," Stafford said. "I was crawling but still couldn't get low enough at the time."
Stafford said his hat had gotten knocked off and he didn't have a hood on, which caused the burns to his neck, ears and down his back.
"I never passed out. I had my breathing apparatus on, and I was able to get outside," he said.
McMullins was in Houston in training when the accident happened.
"I got the call that there had been an accident and we had firefighters injured. That's a call you never want to receive," he said.
McMullins said flashovers do not happen that often.
"We're usually able to get to the fire and get it out before it gets to that flashover stage," he said.
"Brian is the first person in the department to be injured like this, and I hope and pray he is the last."
After returning to work, Stafford was promoted to fire inspector, where he teaches fire safety.
"I use my experience to teach others to let them know what can happen, and hopefully help them to be prepared in case it does," Stafford said. "I thank God for sparing my life and for allowing me to be a positive impact on other people in life, as well as in the fire service.
"There is no doubt that this incident has strengthened my faith" he said. "I get up every day with the same conviction to help someone in whatever way God wants me to.
"We are here to help people. Every day someone is hurting; someone has to be there to provide help," Stafford said. "That's what we are here for. I wouldn't be happy doing anything else."