North Dakota Firefighter, Burning, Ran for His Life

His bare arms were on fire -- flames visible, on the skin of his forearms. He may not have noticed that problem right away because there wasn't any pain.

His bare arms were on fire -- flames visible, on the skin of his forearms. He may not have noticed that problem right away because there wasn't any pain.

Firefighter Mark Keller, 33, was busy running for his life, trying to get out of a prairie fire that had him surrounded. But it was taking so long, as if he were walking -- and then he looked down and saw that the flames had found him.

The Wilton firefighter had on a short-sleeved T-shirt when he bolted from his disabled firetruck, and now he saw his forearms were literally on fire.

So he stopped, dropped and rolled. And then he ran on. But when he looked down again, the flames were still there, eating his arms, and so he dropped again. But rolling wasn't working. Finally, he got within range of another firetruck and screamed for a fellow firefighter to turn the hose on him. He saw blisters, and skin was hanging off his arms.

That was April 8 -- the day that he kept saying "I'm sorry," over and over, in the St. Alexius Medical Center's emergency room to his wife of less than one year, Michelle Keller, 31.

"Don't be sorry. We're going to get through this," she said. She didn't cry then. The tears started on the emergency plane ride with him to the Regions Burn Center in St. Paul, Minn.

She remembers that his skin was gray, his face swollen. He wasn't dead, but he looked it.

Fewer nightmares

It's now late May. Keller is still running from fire, his arms on fire, but now it's in his dreams -- nightmares that sometimes wake him up as he lies in his bed at the burn center.

But the nightmares are less frequent than they once were, and progress is being made -- even though the saga is expected to continue for many months.

He has made it -- made it through such things as being wrapped like a mummy for about three weeks, with only his eyes, tips of fingers and nose showing; and through 31/2 weeks on the respirator; and then not having the strength to walk for awhile; and through pneumonia and strep throat and skin-graft operations on his arms and under his eyes.

The two firefighters who were on the back of the firetruck Keller was driving are recovering, too. James Meyer, who was wearing full bunker gear, sustained burns around his eyes because of the eye-slit opening in his mask. Meyer said recently that the burns now feel like a sunburn. Firefighter Geremy Olson, also in full bunker gear, ran into major trouble because he broke a leg when he jumped off the truck, which slowed his escape. And he lost a boot during the chaos and sustained burns. Keller said Olson, who had been hospitalized in Bismarck, is out now.

But Keller, who sustained third-degree burns on his arms and deep second-degree burns on his face, as well as less serious burns on his neck, chest and other spots, has a ways to go.

Hard lesson

"I've learned my lesson," he said.

Keller said that because it's difficult to drive a truck with full bunker gear, and it's terribly hot, he had taken off his bunker jacket and helmet, and only had on his bunker pants and a T-shirt when the firefighters ran into trouble while fighting a grass fire southwest of Wilton.

Everything seemed to be going relatively smoothly until Keller crested a hill south of 305th Avenue Northwest. That's when he realized what he hadn't known until just then -- and then it was too late.

He saw the other fire, just for a second, before it collided with the fire they had been fighting.

He realized, in that second, that the fire must have divided, at the base of the hill -- and then taken two different paths to get up the hill. The firefighters hadn't been aware of that. While Keller drove, Meyer and Olson in back were hosing down, successfully, what they thought was the only fire around.

But when Keller crested the hill, the fire they didn't know about collided with the fire they did, causing what firefighters called "flash over."

"It sucks the oxygen out of the air," he said.

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