From the Ashes
Hart High Student Reclaims Life After Christmas House Fire
December, 2006 - Issue #26
Michael Ewart
Michael Ewart
It was a Christmas tradition. Every year, the Ewart family opened their home to the neighborhood and went all-out for the holiday. After last year's celebration, as the family settled upstairs into bed for the night, the flame from a still-burning candle started a house fire that left several members of the Ewart family severely burned and injured. Fifteen-year-old Michael Ewart suffered the most serious injuries with third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. His father and 81-year-old grandfather also were burned and injured.

Michael has vague memories of the fire. He remembers his younger brother screaming. He remembers wandering through the smoke and extreme heat to help his grandparents escape. He also remembers the ambulance ride and the reassurance that he would be alright. Shortly thereafter, Michael was placed in a coma at the Grossman Burn Center where he underwent several skin grafts and surgeries.

Today, one year after the fire, Michael still faces weekly physical therapy and several more surgeries. He wears pressure garments on his hands and arms to smooth out the scars on his skin. Doctors tell Michael that due to the amount of smoke he inhaled the night of the fire, his lungs are functioning at about 68 percent. His mother Jacqui, stepfather Fred and younger brother and sister, Jonathan and Heather, watch in amazement as Michael valiantly regains his life.

A junior at Hart High School, Michael maintains a 4.7 grade point average and has returned to his beloved sport of soccer (he is a goalie). Just last summer, Michael was unable to completely stretch out his arms. With therapy, Michael is now getting ready to try out for the Hart swim team. Michael also found the time to begin a nonprofit foundation, ME-SAFe (the Michael Ewart Smoke Alarm Foundation), which provides smoke detectors and fresh batteries to families in need.

Michael, with siblings Heather & Jonathan
Michael, with siblings Heather & Jonathan
Michael's progress has been nothing short of a miracle for his mother Jacqui. She was out of town last year when the fire broke out and took the longest flight of her life as soon as she was able to contact a neighbor and find out how her children were doing.

While her son was at Grossman Burn Center, Jacqui said there were some really bad days as Michael's blood pressure dropped and infections invaded his body. She was constantly peppering the doctors and staff with questions. "I must have been a pest," she says now. "If you don't know if your child is going to live or die, you are a basket case. Once I knew he was going to be okay, I could handle anything."

She was not alone in her bedside vigils. Former Hart High student and another burn victim, Chris James, stopped in to see Michael on a regular basis. James and fellow student, Nolan LeMar, were severely burned in an accident at Hart High during a science experiment in 1998. Chris, who also spent a Christmas at Grossman, and his family became good friends with the Ewarts and he continues to see and support Michael. Another Hart High graduate, athlete Jerry Owens who plays for the White Sox, has been in communication with Michael and invited him out to Arizona during the fall season.

Michael returned to Hart High shortly after his release from Grossman. Jacqui thinks he might have pushed himself too much, but the staff at the school was extremely helpful during this period. They used golf carts to get Michael to and from class and fellow students took notes because Michael couldn't hold a pen. Jacqui credits several teachers at the school including Counselor Juliet Salazar, Journalism teacher Kathy Wilson and Steve Neale who teaches Advanced Placement classes and coaches the swim team.

"Michael has always been a wonderful student," Wilson wrote. "His attitude has been nothing short of remarkable. So positive and upbeat, he's truly an inspiration."

Michael's self-motivation has impressed Coach Neale, who never doubted Michael would try out for the swim team.

"Michael has always accepted challenges and I think that overcoming his burn injuries is seen as another challenge," Neale wrote. "In all the time I've been in contact with Michael I have never heard him complain or whine or despair about his condition."

"Every day I work with young people who always look for an excuse to dodge an assignment or miss a workout," Neale continued. "I wish they could step outside their little circle of self interest and see what Michael has done - a young man who almost died last December - a young man with severe burns over most of his body - a young man who still faces on-going surgeries and must wear pressure dressing. He is one of the most remarkable people, old or young, I have had the privilege to know."

Michael with mom Jacqui
Michael with mom Jacqui
Home fires during the holiday season are linked to candles, dried-out Christmas trees and frayed holiday light wiring, just to name a few hazards, said Stephanie English, community services liaison for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"No tree fires were reported last year for Santa Clarita, but there may have been holiday-related fires for lights and of course, candles," she said.

Smoke detectors are the first line of defense, English said, and every home should be equipped with smoke detectors in each bedroom and hallway. Families should also discuss escape routes in case of a house fire and children should be taught to stop, drop and roll. During the holiday season, the fire department warns residents to make sure Christmas trees have plenty of water and to remove the tree before it becomes brittle or before January 1. Always check the cords and wiring on tree lights and turn off all Christmas lights before leaving the house.

The Ewart family home was equipped with a smoke detector but the batteries were no good. Michael said it was fortunate the bedrooms were all upstairs as he believes no one would have survived the downstairs fire. "This could happen to anyone," Jacqui said. "My children were very lucky."


Kitchen Fire Safety Tips from the Los Angeles County Fire Department

The leading cause of cooking fires in unattended equipment. Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling, broiling or boiling food. If you must leave the kitchen for a short period of time, turn off the stove. If you are simmering, baking, or roasting food, check it regularly. Remain in the home while food is cooking and use a timer to remind you that something is cooking.

Keep young children at least three feet away from any place where hot food or drink is being prepared. Young children have a high risk of thermal or scald burns from hot food, drink, tableware, cookware and cooking equipment.

Be particularly careful with flammable or combustible liquids near potential heat sources, such as hot stove surface burners or pilot lights, which are heat sources even when the stove is not in use.

Avoid wearing loose clothing or dangling sleeves which can catch fire if it comes in contact with a flame or hot cooking element. Avoid reaching over active burners to access items behind them, including other burners and stored items on stovetop or counters or in cabinets.

Use oven mitts or other protection for hands when moving hot food from ovens, microwave ovens or stovetops. Never use wet oven mitts or potholders as there is a risk of scald burns.

Always keep an oven mitt or pot lid (fitted to the pot or pan you are using) near you when you are cooking. If a small grease fire starts in the pot or pan, smother the flames by carefully sliding the lid over the pan, using the oven mitt to shield yourself if the lid itself becomes hot. Then turn off the burner. To keep the fire from restarting with fresh oxygen, keep the lid in place until the pot or pan is completely cool.

Never cook when you are drowsy or if you have consumed alcohol or medication that can make you sleepy.
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