The evening of July 6 started relatively uneventful for Austin Branch, but would end with him being hospitalized in Winston-Salem with severe burns to his legs.
Although he is a member of the Franklin Community Volunteer Fire Department, Austin, 19, was not injured during an emergency call with that unit, but while burning some wood with a friend at his home on Hedgepin Lane, Mount Airy.
The fire had been started with an alcohol-type chemical the youth compared to paint-thinner, which was in a one-gallon metal container.
Austin, a 2014 graduate of Mount Airy High School who was on the Bears’ wrestling team, later walked by the smouldering wood with the open container at one point — which proved to have near-disastrous results.
“I heard the explosion and I felt something hit my legs,” he said from his room at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Tuesday, which Austin realized was the flammable liquid from the container. “I knew I was on fire — I kind of jumped back and realized something was burning,” he recalled, but “didn’t really feel the burn.”
Austin immediately went into stop, drop and roll mode — “to be honest, that was something I learned in elementary school.”
However, he was still on fire. “I had to get one of my buddies to jump on me,” Austin said of the friend there at the time, Brian Bennett.
Austin’s injuries were limited to the waist down, but involved second- and third-degree burns over his legs.
As a member of the Franklin Community Volunteer Fire Department since March and someone who wants to work in the emergency-response field, Austin managed to avoid panicking as many people would in such circumstances.
“I knew more about what was going on,” the burn victim said of being able to keep his wits about him. “I knew what the situation was.”
But, he admits, “it was scary.”
The initial outlook by burn-unit specialists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who are treating Austin’s injuries was not good.
Due to the severity of the burns, it was thought skin grafts would be needed in at least a couple of spots, which involves a patch of skin being surgically removed from one section of the body and transplanted, or attached, to another area.
“But it got better,” Austin said Tuesday of his condition. He was hoping to be able to return home later in the day after more than a week’s stay in the Winston-Salem medical facility.
After being told last week that he likely would have to undergo surgery this week, Austin said doctors were encouraged by subsequent examinations of his burns. They have decided to let him go home for a couple of weeks to see if the injuries clear up on their own, then he’ll return for a checkup to determine if any skin grafting will be necessary.
“It might heal or it might not,” Austin said.
He is hoping to be able to get around without crutches or similar aids.
“I can actually walk,” the youth added Tuesday, which he said is good for the recovery process from the burns. “Actually, it’s better for me to walk than to use any kind of help.”
Still, it will be a slow process getting back to his old routine, including Austin’s volunteer service with the fire department and a job at the Chili’s restaurant in Mount Airy.
“I’ve been wanting to run calls and stuff like that, but doctors think it will be about a month before I can even go back to work.”
Yet Austin’s long-term prognosis is bright, according to his doctors. “They told me I should have no problems.”
Austin’s plans to begin an EMT (emergency medical technician) course as part of his career plans also have temporarily been put on hold along with his work with the fire department.
“I’ve always wanted to do it since I’ve been able to,” he said of the latter. “I was always playing sports in high school, so I didn’t have time for it.”
The youth says that his burn injuries have been a stark reminder about the volatility of flammable liquids that come into contact with burning material, which is covered ad nauseam in basic fire safety tips.
Expert warnings about the dangers of such substances have convinced him “you shouldn’t be messing with it,” Austin said.
From now on when starting a fire, he plans to rely on items such as kindling instead.
However, the situation could have turned out much more severe.
“It was an open container and that was a good thing,” Austin explained. “If that container was closed, it would have been a lot worse,” due to the contents being under greater pressure.
“I think the hardest part has just been trying to get comfortable here in the hospital,” added Austin, who was looking forward Tuesday to being back home and getting more rest.
He is thankful for the support received from loved ones and associates during his hospital stay. “I’ve had a bunch of people from the fire department to come down here.”
The Facebook social-media site on the Internet also has helped the young man stay in touch with the outside world.
“I’ve used that just to thank people.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.