On Friday, Aug. 20, 1999, just after lunch, Dave Bowers’ world exploded. The mechanical engineer was standing on a stepladder examining an oxygen pipeline at the company he worked for in the Golden Triangle — an area that encompasses Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.
He jumped down as he saw sparks, just before a fireball erupted, burning everything in its path at a temperature of 3,000 degrees.
The childhood memory of a story about a child breathing in fire probably saved his life.
Instead of instinctively gasping, Bowers held his breath, dropped and rolled, reducing his inhalation injuries and putting out the fire almost instantly.
And unlike many survivors of catastrophic burns, he remembers everything about it.
“At that point, I was not in pain,” Bowers said. “I probably was in shock.”
He said he could feel his feet and armpits burning; they were the only areas that still had nerve endings. He was able to get up and walk toward co-workers who called for help. By the time the ambulance arrived, the pain had set in.
“The EMT was great,” he said. “He kept me focused and talked to me and asked me about my family and what I like to do.”
On the way to a local hospital, Bowers learned he had a “high-mortality” injury.
At the emergency room, the doctor echoed that opinion. Bowers’ response: “Get busy. I’m going to beat the odds.”
His wife, Carly, arrived at the emergency room before he did, and the couple was able to speak briefly, struggling to say goodbye.
“It’s not nearly as glamorous as in the movies,” Bowers said, describing the awkward moment. “I’m not sure if she knew at that point the bleak outlook.”
He was airlifted to the Blocker Burn Unit at UTMB. He would be there until the second week of December — roughly four months after that frightful day in August.
Bowers was fortunate to find himself in the care of the Blocker Burn Unit. It was established by Dr. Truman Blocker, who went on to become president of the medical branch.
Blocker, who had been a U.S. Army surgeon during the war, directed the medical branch’s response to the Texas City explosion of 1947.
He mobilized the entire campus after truck after truck arrived at the medical branch carrying victims of the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. Those early efforts would lead to the development of a world-renowned center of excellence for burn care, innovations and research.
At John Sealy Hospital at the medical branch, doctors determined Bowers had suffered burns to 94 percent of his body, and roughly 70 percent were third-degree burns.
Care for such a grievous injury is a complicated process. One of the first steps is to remove the damaged tissue and cover it with cadaver skin to reduce the risk of infection.
There also is a series of surgeries to relieve the pressure caused by internal swelling of the organs and tissue. And finally, there is the need for skin grafts.
In Bowers’ case, doctors took two pieces of skin the size of a postage stamp from his ankles that were sent to a lab in the Boston area to grow more skin.
Eventually, 192 sheets of his skin, measuring 3-by-5 inches, came back to Texas. Once the skin was replaced, he was put in full body traction and suspended so the grafts would succeed.
Perhaps the lowest point in his ordeal was the first time his son, then 2, saw him and said, “That’s not my father.”
But Bowers focused on the high points. He recalled meeting a burn survivor who gave him hope that eventually he would get out of bed and back to a normal life.
And he relished Sunday nights in the hospital when he and his wife would watch a movie and he was allowed to eat something besides a high-energy supplement.
When he left the burn unit, he couldn’t sit up, feed himself or walk more than a few feet without assistance. He spent more than two months in rehabilitation.
A year after the accident, work began on the reconstructive process. All in all, he estimates it was two and half years before he reclaimed ownership of his life.
“It’s not that I was necessarily healed,” he said. “It was that we would tell the doctors when I would have surgery instead of them saying this has to be done now.”
And it’s been only about five years since he has not required surgery.
In addition to evidence of the grafts, he lost an ear and the tips of his fingers, which still have limited mobility.
“I have some limitations,” Bowers said. “Being an engineer, I can figure out how to do most of the things I want to do. I just do them unconventionally.”
Now back in his native Indiana, Bowers, 42, recently returned to Galveston for the first time in several years to attend the World Burn Congress, which was held this year at Moody Gardens. The event, which he has attended many times, is presented annually by the Phoenix Society for burn survivors.
“Providing hope is a big thing when you’re lying in bed thinking you’re the only person who’s ever been through this,” he said.
He praised the organization for its peer support and the information and resources it can provide to survivors and their families.
The World Burn Congress offers burn survivors the chance to learn about tools for coping and to share their stories.
“It might be the first time you take off your shirt and go to the swimming pool because everyone looks the same,” he said.
“You’re surrounded by a group of people you don’t have to explain yourself to, why you do or don’t do things, because they already know where you’re at. They’ve been there.”