“As a school superintendent, I’ve told my story hundreds of times to kids,” Wayne Stanley, Superintendent of South Prairie School District said.
Thirty years after, he shared it once more as he remembered what happened on Sept. 15, 1991.
Stanley was a college student at the time, visiting his hometown of Sherwood over the weekend.
The volunteer fire department responded to a fire west of town. Two oil tanks were ablaze due to a lightning strike.
“The wind shifted, did a 180, started blowing from the southwest, taking all the smoke and heat at the truck,” Stanley explained. “Ultimately, it was decided to abandon the scene.”
The eight-man crew got back on the truck to let the fire burn out when they clipped a pipe and the fire quickly engulfed the truck.
Wayne said, “I remember looking over my shoulder, watching the tanks burn behind us. Ninety-nine percent of the job was done. We loaded up just to prevent anyone from getting injured and ultimately there were six of us severely burned.”
His memory of that day is crystal clear, “Everything from ‘I’m on fire I’m on fire,’ to stop drop and roll, to ‘God let me die.’ About 49 percent of my body — of that — all of it was third-degree burns. For two seconds you’re in tremendous pain…and then you felt warm” he said. “I found a ditch full of water, fell into that and put myself out.”
He was one of six men severely burned.
Five days later, Craig Keith died of his injuries.
About a year later, Kevin Johnson also passed away. He was on the front of the truck when it went up in flames but went back to find his brother, Brad.
“It was just a dark, dark day in North Dakota,” Stanley reflected.
For David Steeves, he was short of words when recalling what happened.
“You wonder why,” Steeves said. Craig [he had] three young kids. And you had Kevin who lived for a year and then died. You wonder why.”
A monument stands at the Sherwood Fire Department in honor of Craig and Kevin.
Their deaths and the injuries of others were not in vain.
“A lot of the fire departments all around, in U.S. and Canada learned a lot — what not to do,” said Steeves. “Not saying we did anything wrong, it was mother nature, the wind changed and took things out of our control. But being so many people burnt so similar, the hospitals learned many things on how to treat patients that were burnt. So you wonder why, and that must be some of the reasons why.”
The crew was not properly protected that day.
They didn’t have gloves, for example. But Steeves and Stanley say a lot has changed since then and safety remains a top priority for fire departments across the state. “It’s history,” Steeves said.
While Stanley’s memories of that day are vivid, the days and weeks that followed weren’t the same.
He endured many surgeries and was medicated. His mother suddenly passed away just six days after the fire.
“People videotaped my mom’s funeral,” he said as he shook his head. “There will be a day that I watch it. But…not yet.”
But it wasn’t all bad. He became engaged and he doesn’t exactly remember asking his now-wife, Joanne but the love that was there then is still here today.
“For me, it’s probably one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me when I look back on it because I learned some hard lessons but I learned to appreciate life a lot more,” said Stanley.
In honor of the 30th anniversary, he got a tattoo of the bird that represents the Phoenix Society, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting burn survivors and their loved ones.
You see the bird rising out of the ashes and right there is where the donor site meets the grafted skin that was taken from his abdomen.
He says it represents the change in life he experienced from before the fire and after.