How one man’s brush with death led him out of the flames and back to life
BY MATT CROSSMAN
The Twisp River Fire raged through a forest northeast of Seattle. Whipping winds doubled its size in 15 minutes, and the fire ultimately burned more than 11,000 acres during 2015’s bone-dry summer. Flames licked the sky 60 feet above the firefighters’ heads as they worked to protect a home in the rural northeastern part of Washington. Heat lashing their faces, it became clear they couldn’t save the house. Instead, they had to save themselves.
Daniel Lyon, then a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service working out of Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest, rushed to Engine 642, climbed into the seat behind the driver and held on as they took off. Smoke as “black as night,” according to an investigative report, obscured their view. The road turned, but the engine didn’t. The truck careened down an embankment and slammed to the ground some 40 feet below the road.
“I knew right then the only chance of survival was getting out of that fire engine and running,” Lyon said. He climbed out, and fire ripped through everything—trees, grass, the truck, even Lyon himself. His clothes melted to his skin as he clambered up the steep ravine, hand over hand, fingertips digging into the scorching dirt.
After reaching the road, he sprinted toward a wall of flame, burst through and left the fire behind. Grief swallowed him as he realized the other three firefighters in the truck—Thomas Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler—had not made it out. All three died in the fire.
Firefighters rushed to Lyon’s aid, peeling off his smoldering clothes and driving him to meet an ambulance that was on its way. He begged the EMTs to pray for him, to give him painkillers.
Then the world went black.
Clothes melted to his skin as he clambered up the steep ravine, hand over hand, fingertips digging into the scorching dirt.
I met Lyon 18 months ago. Now a policeman near Seattle, he’s trim and athletic looking, the result of countless hikes across the Pacific Northwest with his girlfriend, Megan Lanfear. He has dark hair and seems to always wear the hint of a smile.
Two things struck me when I first saw him: his scars—“What the hell happened to him?” I wondered—and his eyes. They invited me to ask, “What the hell happened to you?” His eyes and his scars formed a “before” and “after” picture in one body. Whatever the hell happened to him, his eyes show that those scars taught him something about life, I thought, and I wanted to know what that is.
In a series of conversations this spring, Lyon tells me he spent recent months plotting his future with Lanfear, who had been accepted into two dental hygienist schools. The time came to decide which one to attend: The one in Idaho or the one in Wyoming?
If Lyon’s life had turned out differently, the couple might have stressed over which school to choose, which neighborhood to live in, which house to buy. But instead of worrying about such decisions, they’re excited to make them.
These options represent independence to Lyon, 31, a goal he has been pursuing since he nearly burned to death inside that Twisp River Fire seven years ago. “We didn’t know if he was going to be able to feed himself,” Lanfear said.
By spending years rebuilding his body, mind and life, Lyon has progressed from being unable to brush his teeth to this, the precipice of homeownership, and the last step toward living the life he envisioned for himself before the fire. “My dream has always been to live independently and be able to have my own house, a little piece of land that I can take care of,” he said. To understand how powerfully fulfilling this dream is for Lyon, you have to understand the nightmare he went through to get here.
Three days before Lyon was burned in the fire, his mother, Barbara, dreamed he had died in one. “Every day I would ask him, ‘Are you going to be OK?’” she said. Lyon called his parents in Stevensville, Montana, at noon the day of the fire, so they tried not to worry even as stories about it filled the TV news. At 7 p.m., Barbara’s phone rang. “Get here immediately,” a nurse told her.
Barbara and Daniel’s father Dan drove overnight, arrived in the hospital and rushed to Daniel’s room. He was covered in bandages, IV tubes running into his body from all over. “Am I going to live?” he asked them. Daniel has no memory of that, or anything else for the first month he was in the hospital, much of which he spent in a coma. Dan and Barbara stayed in Seattle for three months, visiting Daniel daily. Their son had been there for Barbara when she fought breast cancer the previous year, and she vowed to be there for him. Some nights she slept on a chair in his room.
“He was having nightmares,” Barbara said. “His blood pressure would shoot way high. His feet would be going 100 miles per hour. There was nothing you could do to control him. When he started to go into that zone, I would start talking to him about family, and his dog, Ozark. My voice would seem to calm him down. The doctors wanted me to stay because that would help him.”
Slowly, the answer to, “Am I going to live?” became “Yes.” But what kind of life would he have? What would he look like? What would he be like? Would he be the goal-setting, go-getting outdoorsman he had been before? That appeared unlikely. The thought that he might someday buy a house and live on his own seemed impossible.
Third-degree burns covered 65 percent of his body. Nine of his fingertips had been amputated. Waffle scars laced his arms. Sunglasses had protected his eyes, boots had shielded his feet and ankles, and he has a clean patch of skin on his right wrist that was covered by his watch. He lost count of how many surgeries and procedures he’s had. It’s more than 100.
As bad as his external injuries were, he suffered no serious internal damage. Lyon and his doctors brainstormed two explanations for why the heat didn’t scorch his lungs. One, it’s a miracle. The other, Daniel was screaming in agony, thus exhaling the entire time. The heat never got inside him.
It’s such a common phrase to say, ‘Oh, you can do anything you set your mind to.’ But I truly believe in that statement.
After three months in the hospital, Lyon moved into his parents’ home in Stevensville to begin three years of physical and occupational therapy. His occupational therapist, Becca Robertson, says burn victims’ skin becomes dry, hard and inflexible. Underneath the skin, Lyon’s muscles and tendons lost flexibility and strength from lack of use.
When he started treatment, Lyon could barely move his fingers. He could not hold anything; he couldn’t button a shirt. His treatment with Robertson loosened his skin first, which eventually led to increased mobility and strength in his hands and arms, the area where Robertson had focused their work.
The two bonded as they spent hundreds of hours together. They talked hunting and fishing and politics. Under Robertson’s care, Lyon worked toward rebuilding strength and dexterity for normal living—getting dressed, eating, driving—and normal for him: fishing, hiking, riding a bike.
Robertson has worked as an occupational therapist for more than 30 years and says Lyon is the most inspiring patient she’s ever worked with. “He always worked through the pain, always pushed himself to do better and better,” she said.
But to what end was he getting better? His physical therapist asked him why he was going through such pain. Lyon’s answer—“Because that’s what doctors told me to do”—wasn’t good enough. He needed a bigger, bolder, more meaningful reason to justify pushing himself beyond normal pain thresholds.
Lyon wanted to be active outside again and set a target to work toward. Summiting Mount Rainier seemed like a way to redeem the pain. Climbing Rainier—a view of which dominated his childhood home near Seattle—would prove he was back to normal, physically, at least.
“You’re going to do what?” his dad asked.
After rigorous cardio training to prepare, Lyon hiked to base camp on the four-year anniversary of the fire. It was a beautiful day. He slept in a hut and woke up to a frigid, rainy morning. Cold makes him numb, which hinders his dexterity, something that’s already limited because he doesn’t have fingertips. He could barely hold the ice axe.
Lyon kept going. He wasn’t summiting Rainier just for himself; he was summiting it for Zbyszewski, Zajac and Wheeler, too. Finally, Daniel and his guided group of 12 arrived near the top with a small window of time to reach the summit, take pictures, and get back down.
The view was … well, there was no view. Rain engulfed them. Visibility was 50 yards. That hardly mattered. Lyon is a Christian, and he believes in heaven, and as he stood atop that mountain he thought, “This is as close as I’ll ever get to being with them on earth.”
The expedition left a mark on his soul and seared into his heart the memories of his fallen comrades. “It was truly the coolest feeling and experience I have got to have, really in my entire life,” he says now. “Just the feeling of accomplishment and the feeling of being close in spirit with my buddies. It was incredible.”
My endurance didn’t just come from myself. It came from the people I surrounded myself with. Society helped me get to where I am.
Sitting across a table from Lyon, I wondered if I was seeing things: Were his scars and his eyes working together, telling a story about what he learned from the experience? About what type of life—about what type of person—a fire can leave in its wake? I described this to people who know him.
Robertson said: “He has this aura about him that makes him seem really open.”
Lanfear: “He’s always been OK telling the story, because at the same time he is telling his story, he is keeping the legacy of his guys alive. It helps him to heal when he talks about it.”
His mom: “He has accepted it.”
The road to acceptance was as arduous as the ascent of Rainier. And far longer. It started when Lyon was in a coma. Stacks of mail—letters of encouragement, drawings from schoolchildren, badges from firefighters—arrived every day. His parents read all of them to him—50 a day, they say. “That’s one of the most powerful things about this whole story,” Lyon said. “My endurance didn’t just come from myself. It came from the people I surrounded myself with. Society helped me get to where I am.”
Still, when he moved from the hospital to his parents’ home he was sullen, withdrawn, simmering with anger, clear indications he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent hours in counseling. “The biggest thing was when I started doing motivational speaking and telling my story,” he said. “Once I broke through that barrier, things started having a snowball effect.”
That snowball got bigger when he became comfortable going out in public with friends, and grew again as he went on vacations. He saw re-establishing his hobbies—fishing, hunting, hiking—as major milestones. He returned to work as a day-trader and part-time cop, the semblance of a normal life.
A budding romance with Lanfear helped, too. Friends before the fire, they became a couple as he healed. Lyon and his parents credit her for inspiring his recovery. Love was a powerful motivator. But it all came laced with pain. Zbyszewski, Zajac and Wheeler can’t go out with friends, can’t work, can’t fall in love with a woman who won’t leave their side. Why should he get to? A better question: What if he could do those things but didn’t?
“I came to a point where it would be worse if I didn’t enjoy life after being granted a second chance at it,” he said. “I couldn’t let it go to waste. That meant simply enjoying life again. I was able to heal some of that survivor’s guilt by looking at it that way.”
The road back remains an ongoing process. “I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover from it mentally,” he said. “But in my heart, I’m in a happy place.”
When I told Lyon what I read in his eyes and scars, he took it as the compliment I meant it to be. He wants people to ask about his scars because it beats staring, and because those scars taught him about resilience. Just as climbing Rainier redeemed his physical pain, helping others by sharing his story redeems his emotional pain.
When he gives speeches, his call to action is always the same. “It’s such a common phrase to say, ‘Oh, you can do anything you set your mind to.’ But I truly believe in that statement.”
Lyon’s life—in whatever house he buys in either Idaho or Wyoming—is proof. “I’m definitely not the strongest guy. I’m not the fastest runner. I’ve never been the top of my class when I went to college or high school. But I think the biggest thing that’s got me through the hardship was my mindset, and just that simple will to live.”
People often comment to him that they could never do what he did. “Of course you think that,” he tells them. “If you would have asked me prior to the accident, ‘Could you survive something like that?’ I would have said, ‘no way in hell.’”
But he did.
“I’m still burned,” he said, “but I’m not broken.”
CALL TO ACTION
Wildland Firefighter Foundation’s focus is to help families of firefighters killed in line of duty and to assist injured firefighters and families. Volunteer with the WFF’s 52 Club and participate in its fundraising events held across the country, including a Vertical Drop ski challenge in Kirkwood, California; a RIP-N-LIPS Lips bass fishing tournament in Prineville, Oregon; and golf, softball and half-marathons around the U.S. Organized by the boots-on-the-ground wildland firefighters themselves, these events take place mainly in spring and fall. In summer, the crews are all fighting fires.
Visit wffoundation.org to learn about these events as well as volunteer and donation opportunities.