Don’t play with matches.
We’ve all heard it before — but if you’re going to listen to anyone preach fire prevention, let it be new Qualicum Beach resident Lynda Llewellyn, who literally walked through fire to save her five-year-old son, scalding her own skin, leaving her hospitalized for nearly a year.
She underwent 35 plastic reconstruction surgeries after the fire.
The single mother lost everything she owned in her uninsured Edmonton apartment.
And it all started with matches one unassuming Friday morning in 1983.
“I woke up at about 7:15 a.m. and went to see my son, Adam… he normally would wake me up but he didn’t that morning… I found Adam was sitting in the living room totally surrounded by fire,” Llewellyn said.
“He had woken up earlier and found some matches somebody had left behind, not something that was normally in our home, and he did what any child that age would do – he started playing with them.”
Llewellyn said she called Adam but he didn’t look up, he just sat there paralyzed with fear in the centre of a ring of fire.
“So I just instinctively did what I think any parent would have done,” she said. “I walked through the flames and I picked him up.”
With Adam tucked under her arm, both ablaze, she walked to her bedroom as it was the furthest room from the fire.
She wrapped a blanket around herself and Adam to put the fire out, then looked out the window of her third storey apartment building along 66th Street to find neighbours scattered down below looking up.
“I dropped Adam down three storeys,” she said. “My hands were so badly burned I couldn’t hold onto him.”
Neighbours reacted quickly, putting Adam in a tub of cool water.
She remembers hearing the blaring sirens of fire trucks getting closer and closer, but at that moment she was all alone.
Soon after, a firefighter appeared to take Llewellyn down.
“I remember him saying he couldn’t take me down because the ladder wasn’t secure, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, I’m not going back in there,’ and he just stayed at the top of the ladder and kept me calm until they put a second ladder up,” she said.
Llewellyn was rushed to University of Alberta Hospital, where she stayed for eight months.
At just 30 years of age, she was on the critical care list for three months and had weekly surgeries for the first five months.
Eighty per cent of Llewellyn’s body is now covered in burns, 50 per cent of them are third degree. The most extensive burns are on her face, hands, arms and back.
“The first time I saw my face was two and a half months after the fire,” she said. “I had pictures on the wall of what I used to look like and I looked at my doctor and I said, ‘Okay, but you can make me look like that again… right?’ and pointed at the pictures and he went, ‘No, there’s no way I can make you look like that again.'”
She recalled feeling completely numb for two days after hearing the news.
“And then I just accepted it and moved forward because there’s no going back,” she said.
Today, Llewellyn is glowing with a serene sense of optimism and strength.
Her face is covered in scars, reminders of the blaze that changed her life forever.
She now dedicates her life to guest speaking about the importance of fire prevention telling her story to people all over Western Canada. She talks to school groups, community organizations and fire departments.
“The gift I give to teenage girls in particular is that I talk about my surgeries,” she said. “A lot of young girls are struggling to fit in… I say, if I can look the way I look and be fine, there’s no reason they can’t.”
Llewellyn got married two years ago and she and her husband relocated to Qualicum Beach in July. She continues to share her story, recently making a presentation to the Bow Horn Bay Volunteer Fire Department.
Fire Prevention Week is being recognized this year Oct. 4-10. According to a news release issued by the City of Parksville, fire prevention week was inspired by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which lasted two days Oct. 8-9 killing more than 250 people and leaving 100,000 homeless. Since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed from the Sunday through Saturday that Oct. 9 falls.