The Test of Fire
For its unsentimental focus on Emmett Jackson's recovery from the arson death of his wife and child and his own extensive injuries. Originally published in the Austin American-Statesman in two parts on Sept. 4, 1994, and Sept. 5, 1994.
Editor's note: Almost no one expected Emmett Jackson to survive the Oct. 11, 1990, inferno that destroyed La Villita No. 2 apartments and took the lives of his wife and daughter. His own burns covered more than 80 percent of his body, robbing him of his hands, nose, ears, eyelids and lips. But after an arduous year-and-a-half of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he is now living independently in Temple, trying to rebuild his life with a new face and new body. Reporter Michele Stanush and photographer Lynne Dobson have followed his progress for more than a year. Their chronicle begins at the April 1993 sentencing of the arsonist.
April 1993 - Emmett Jackson sits rod-straight in the front row of a federal courtroom, a Dallas Cowboys cap guarding his scarred scalp and a black patch covering his left eye.
Metal claws have replaced Emmett's fingers. There are bare nasal cavities where he once had a nose and holes where there once were ears. His lips were rebuilt by doctors.
Emmett, 37, is anxious for this day to be over. It's the sentencing date for the man convicted of setting the October 1990 fire that changed Emmett's life - leaving him maimed and alone.
His wife and only child died.
The arsonist - a five-time felon nicknamed "Trigger" - enters the courtroom. He's a stocky 33-year-old with a defiant chin. He strolls to the front without even a sideways glance at Emmett.
Does he have any idea what he's done? Emmett thinks.
In his old life, Emmett Jackson was an easy-going supermarket baker who loved the feel of raw dough between his fingers. Texture is the key, he'd say.
He was a handsome man who dressed sharp, joked hard, and jogged fast. He had long, well-toned limbs and a low voice with a lyrical cadence - like a poet or a preacher. Except Emmett didn't care much for church. He preferred to hang out with friends or spend time with his family.
He'd "rassle" with his little girl and bake cinnamon rolls for neighboring kids. And he was deeply in love with his wife, a pretty woman with almond-shaped eyes and a keen intellect. "I'd never experienced a woman like that before," he says.
The fire changed all that.
Emmett's daughter, nicknamed "Pookie," died in the blaze. His wife, Diathia Reeder, died two weeks later. And doctors gave Emmett only a slim chance of survival. He had dangerous lung damage, and more than 80 percent of his body was burned.
Fifty-six percent were third-degree burns - all skin layers destroyed.
For months, Emmett lay on a hospital bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, doped up on pain medicine, drifting in and out of hallucinations. Once, strange beings flowed from his skin until they filled up an entire baseball field, attracting TV cameras and emergency vehicles.
Then, suddenly, the beings rushed back into Emmett's body - eating up everything but his head. As paramedics slid his head into the ambulance, he peered up at them and wondered, Why am I not dead?
In reality, Emmett hung between life and death for months. He shrunk from 188 to 121 pounds and, in all, had more than 100 surgeries, including:
Amputation of right digits and left wrist.
Skin harvest from feet and trunk.
Doctors used undamaged skin to close wounds and rebuild lips and a right eyelid. There wasn't enough good skin left for a second lid, so Emmett's other eye was grafted shut.
When Emmett did live, some people wondered why he'd want to.
"Life goes on," he says. "Hard to say, but life goes on."
Today, Emmett's one functioning eye - his right - is trained on the arsonist, whose real name is Bruce Wayne Campbell. Prosecutors said Campbell started the fire with a flare gun in a fit of anger at another apartment residents over an $8 drug debt.
Campbell says something to the judge and gestures toward Emmett with a muscular arm.
Emmett leans to a blond woman next to him. His hearing is badly damaged and he can't understand what was said. The woman, a victim-witness coordinator with the U.S. Attorney's Office, speaks into a black microphone that dangles from Emmett's neck:
"He said: 'I'm sorry that Mr. Jackson's wife and kid died, but I'm innocent.' "
Why won't Campbell just own up? Emmett wonders. Why won't he show remorse?
Now the judge's mouth is moving.
Emmett strains to hear, but it's a muddle of mumbles. The woman repeats what the judge has said:
Campbell has been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison. No parole.
This isn't what Emmett wanted to hear. He was hoping for a life sentence. But the more he says "60 years," over and over, the better it begins to sound.
After he's been there about 20 years, Emmett thinks, and he looks at that calendar and sees that he got to do another 40, he just might miss freedom about as much as I miss Pookie and Dee.
The trial brought back strange nightmares and bad memories.
Emmett was sound asleep around 2 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1990, when his wife, Diathia, shook him awake. There was glass breaking and wood cracking outside their window.
"There must be fighting or something outside," he remembers Diathia saying.
There'd been several fights lately in their 24-unit apartment complex on North Lamar Boulevard. In fact, the couple was hoping to move soon with their fat-cheeked toddler, named after her mother, Diathia.
But when Emmett looked out the front window, all he saw was an eerie orange.
Emmett frantically debated what to do. The apartment had no back door.
And he was afraid the ceiling would collapse. He decided there was only one way out - into the orange.
Running around the apartment, Emmett gathered up all the blankets he could find and drenched them in water. Then he wrapped the wet material around Diathia and Pookie, thinking - in his panic - this might protect them.
With no other options, he sent them out the front door.
It was Emmett's last moment as a family man.
Before he met Diathia, Emmett had been a ladies man. He was a quick-witted charmer with a flirtatious grin. But Diathia was unlike any other woman he'd known.
From a middle-class family in Ohio, she'd been educated in private schools and had gone to college. Emmett, raised in a less affluent part of Temple, considered himself more "a blue-jeans guy with a cigarette behind the ear."
He was street-smart and charismatic, a leader in sports who had never applied himself in school. Instead of college, he'd followed a buddy into the Army.
There was one other difference, a difference so striking the couple sometimes joked about it: Diathia had once worked in a prison; Emmitt had once lived in one.
"It was good girl meets bad boy," he says.
Emmett was lured by the fast money of the streets and by professional crooks who liked the discipline of former military men. At one point, he padded his pockets with big bills, drove a Lincoln Continental and hung out with fast-living women.
"Fast money attracts fast women," he says.
But he paid a price: almost three years in prison for burglary and forgery.
Emmett was on parole when he met Diathia in a South Austin park. She was eating grapes and he - still a shameless flirt - asked her to share. Love and a baby named Pookie followed.
The Lincoln Continental and the wad of big bills was long gone. Emmett took the bus to work. And he didn't earn much as a grocery baker. Later, when new store owners cut salaries, he quit and became a delivery truck driver.
But his life had taken on a new tone.
"It was peaceful," he says.
As flames devoured their apartment complex, however, all Emmett felt was panic. He dashed around, searching for valuables and money. He figured the family would have to spend the night in a motel.
Wearing only a pair of swimming trunks, he headed out himself.
"Then I realized how bad the fire was," he says. "I guess it was burning my face so much that my judgment was off. I kept running into things. I would hit the wall, and I'd bounce off. Then I tried again and hit that wall again. My body was in shock, I guess, because I wasn't feeling too much of the fire after one point."
When Emmett finally emerged, he found his wife - her face and body severely burned - in the parking lot. She tearfully told him she had dropped the baby in the flames.
Thinking he could rescue Pookie, Emmett started back. But the blaze was too intense.
"I was trying not to let Dee hug me or touch me because we were so badly burned. She was a pinkish color, a raw color. I could see the blood dripping from her fingers, but I didn't realize that I was burned as bad."
Senior paramedic Nolan Lujan will never forget the man he rushed to Brackenridge Hospital that morning, frantically trying to keep airways open and breathing monitored. Emmett was the most severely burned person the paramedic had ever seen.
"He was awake. He was moaning and saying how bad he hurt," Lujan remembers. "Someone who is burned that badly, you know they're probably going to die. You're almost talking to a dead man."
Three days after the blaze, Lujan still had the smell of fire and flesh in his nose.
"This was a human being in tatters. His skin was crisp and hanging off in rags. I remember his arms were extremely burned; he couldn't put them down. I'm sure I'll carry those images with me the rest of my life."
After the sentencing, TV and newspaper people surround Emmett outside the courthouse, flailing notebooks and training cameras on his new face.
"Are you mad at Bruce Wayne Campbell?" asks a reporter.
Emmett listens carefully, trying to match what he thinks they're saying with how their lips move.
"Yes," Emmett answers in a steady voice. "Yes, I am. I lost my wife. My daughter. We were just everyday working people. I've gotta live my life with a prosthesis. It's frustrating. I'm scarred badly."
It's only April, but Emmett feels as if he were standing under a burning August sun, slathered in suntan lotion. The sun is too bright for him.
Grafted skin doesn't sweat like normal skin.
"When people say you are an inspiration," another reporter asks, "how does that make you feel?"
Inspiration. It's not a word Emmett heard a lot before the fire. But he figures God saved him for some reason. Maybe he's meant to set an example.
Emmett is eager for other accident victims to see him and find hope.
"I did try to handle it the best I could," he tells the cameras.
"Justice has been served. I'm starting new."
There was a time Emmett could barely move; his mobility was like that of a quadriplegic. It took months of painful therapy to stretch rigid scar tissue, regain range of motion and rebuild endurance. But now Emmett walks miles in a lanky stride.
He's even back to flirting and cracking jokes. When his doctor-built lips widen into a sly grin, the scars on his face seem to fade.
But today there isn't much to joke about.
When the TV cameras turn off, Emmett walks over to the shade of a big magnolia in front of the courthouse. His mother, Mildred Barnwell, waits nearby to take him back to their hometown of Temple.
Mildred, who owns a little nightclub, is a striking woman with thin eyebrows etched on a hard head. When Emmett was in acute care, she closed up her business and stayed with him - day and night - for months.
"You can't give up on me," she'd tell him again and again.
Emmett inherited his mother's doggedness. More recently, they've butted heads over where he will live. Mildred wanted him with her. She remodeled her house and took training on how to treat his wounds.
But Emmett wanted his independence. Eventually, he moved into his own apartment in Temple.
Mildred pulls out a cigarette with the same long sinewy fingers that Emmett once had.
"Oh, I was mad at first. I was so mad at him," she tells a bystander. "I wasn't ready to let him loose. But he's determined not to be nothing but a man."
Emmett is working hard to accept his new body and face. He's learning to inure himself to double-takes and stares. Before he meets new people, he tells himself: It wasn't my fault. I couldn't help it.
Sometimes he talks to himself when he's all alone.
Maybe I don't look that bad.
But it's a constant struggle.
I just look different.
A constant refrain.
I survived a bad fire. A tragic fire. I got a blessing.
One warm day that summer, as Emmett escorts a friend to her car, he spies a pretty young woman in the laundry room of his apartment building.
Maybe he should introduce himself on his way back, he thinks.
Make me get back into the competitive field again.
But Emmett is back in his apartment, mixing a cup of coffee, before he remembers her. He bolts out the door and down the elevator, but it's too late. The woman is gone.
"Man, she was beautiful. I don't know how it slipped my mind. Sometime I might see her again, and I'll get a chance to speak. I won't pass up the next opportunity."
Emmett's determined not to let his scars keep him cloistered. He was a social man before the fire, and he's determined to be a social man again.
But as summer rolls along, something he has no control over keeps him indoors - the temperature.
The summer heat consumes Emmett like a demon. In cooler weather, he strolled all over Temple, visiting old friends and exercising his body. Now, even a short walk becomes smothering. To drive out the heat, Emmett must stand for 30 minutes - arms outstretched like wings - in front of an air-conditioner.
So, for much of the day, Emmett is stuck in his apartment.
He's lonely and bored. And with two metal claws, even ordinary chores are challenges. It's hard to bathe. It's hard to button shirts. He can't tie his ties.
He has a helper who cooks and cleans in the mornings, but she can't be there all day. It is a test of Emmett's mental strength to keep from falling into a deep depression. His thoughts begin to go around and around, like a wheel stuck in a parched gully.
I can't go to the library.
I can't make it there.
I can't go shopping.
I can't make it there.
I can't go by a friend's house.
I can't make it there.
One day, he pulls out a piece of paper and - with pen clutched in the claw of his prosthesis - writes about his anger toward the arsonist. He needs a release.
"All this because Bruce Wayne Campbell gets mad and starts a fire," he thinks. "It changes my life. Strips me of my loved ones. Confines me to a four-cornered room."
Then he crumples up the paper and throws it away. He doesn't want to feel bitter. But he does.
He doesn't want to feel sorry for himself. But his hurt is deep and baffling.
I don't understand death. The loss of someone you love.
After the fire, when Emmett himself was close to death, he'd leave the hospital every weekend to visit his wife. He loved talking to Diathia. She was so smart and well-spoken.
It was months before Emmett realized he had been hallucinating.
Now, he stares at the clock and imagines what his wife and daughter would have been doing in their old life. Would they be at the bus stop, standing under a shade tree, waiting for Emmett to return from work?
He looks at photos above his dining-room table.
There is Diathia as a young woman, her hair long and wavy, her eyes focused off in the distance; there's Pookie, a shy smile above a pointed chin, hands clenched in soft fists.
"I long for just a touch. Just a touch," he says. "I wonder if I'll ever fall in love like that again. I wonder, will I leave this Earth with no children left on it?"
Sometimes it feels good just to sit and think about his family. But, intuitively, Emmett knows he can't feed off memories.
He decides to keep his mind and his body moving.
When it's time to exercise to keep from stiffening up, he talks to himself like some blustering coach: Don't get lazy, Emmett. Push, Emmett.
One evening, when the sun is long gone, he goes outside and begins to jog.
He jogs down two blocks, across another block, and all the way back.
Slowly but surely, he gets his strength back.
He's anxious to convince buddies he's still the same old Emmett. When it cools off at night, he sometimes visits friends at their homes or a local nightclub. He dresses sharp and splashes on his favorite cologne.
"Give them something to think about other than the way I look."
He felt shy around women at first, wondering how they'd react to his burns. But as his exercise starts paying off, as he becomes more flexible and limber, Emmett regains some of his self-confidence.
In the rehab hospital, he once joked to nurses: When I get outta here, all I want is a bottle of Bud and a babe. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea, he decides.
Stuck at home, he sucks cold beer through a straw and thinks about female companionship.
"I want a sensuous lady, 'cause I think I'm a sensuous kind of person," he says. "But I don't want any commitments. I just want to stay a bachelor and love Dee and Pookie for the rest of my life."
Sometimes he talks about his romantic desires with his psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Center in Temple. But he's nervous about the prospect of getting close to a woman; he says he feels like a "young virgin."
His psychologist assures him all this is normal.
Still, despite attempts to rebuild his life, Emmett is not the same old guy with a new face and a new body. He has gone through horrors unimaginable to most people. And he has not been untouched.
He's started looking deeper inside and farther beyond.
"When you're on the edge (of death), a lot of spiritual things start happening," he says.
Though he'd never been much interested in religion, he picks up a Bible, eager to figure out why all this happened. The Book of Proverbs appeals to him: Love wisdom like a sweetheart.
Maybe, Emmett thinks, he'll also find wisdom in school.
"I got a craving for education that I never had before," he says.
"There's something inside of me pushing me to grab, and I'm grabbing."
He talks with a woman from the Texas Rehabilitation Commission about what he will need to go to college. He'd like to get a degree in social work. Be able to counsel other people with disabilities, particularly burn victims. My people, he calls them.
But school is a daunting prospect. How will he take notes? How will he hear? How will he get there?
"Those are the things that make you wanna quit, make you want to just say, 'Well, I'll just draw a check for the rest of my life.' But I don't want to do that."
Emmett draws on a strength he had before the fire. Discipline. He'd learned that early, in junior high school, when he was a track star and an agile football halfback.
"When I meet a challenge, I guess I go for it," he says. "Win or lose. And I don't like to lose."
He decides to tackle one goal at a time. He'll need to get his driver's license again to drive to school.
Sometimes he practices in a friend's lumbering '83 Fifth Avenue. He slips off the prosthesis on his right arm, which still has a wrist and palm, and maneuvers the steering wheel. He uses the rubber tip of the other prosthesis to balance.
He fills out applications for school and classes for drivers with disabilities. But as the summer goes by, he gets more and more frustrated by how much time everything takes.
And he can't stop thinking about his family. It's a constant battle, wrestling with depression and frustration. How long will this last?, he wonders.
When he expresses his frustration out loud, his voice slides and dips like a blues singer:
My heart is tired and my mind is weary.
I'm just letting that time pass by. Letting that time pass by ...
Emmett admits he was never a man with much patience. When he got tired of the military, he left. When he got tired of lady friends, he took off.
Prison taught him about patience; so did his wife.
Now he has no choice. And so he learns.
"I've had to learn to calm myself down," he says in late summer, "and accept the bitter with the sweet. And take my time, and let it happen, and quit rushing things. I'm not rushing things anymore."
He tries to focus on what he has. He doesn't have much hearing, but he has some. He doesn't have hands, but he can fry chicken without utensils.
"I have my own tongs."
He also likes his apartment. It's in a government-built building for people with disabilities and the elderly. Most of Emmett's neighbors are old ladies - "good watchdogs," he calls them - and a couple even act like surrogate grandmothers, providing cookies and conversation.
One day, an elderly woman - frustrated by her own feebleness - asks Emmett how he keeps going "day after day."
Emmett isn't sure what to say. He often wonders where his strength comes from. Is he a natural survivor? His mother says he was born with an inner fortitude. That he was her strongest child.
Was it something spiritual that happened to him after the fire? He often feels, in some inexplicable way, he inherited strength from Diathia and Pookie when they died.
"I got a gift from God," he tells the old lady. "I survived a truly tragic fire. And to survive something like that, you have to pay a price. And the price is really nothing but healing."
Despite everything, Emmett loves living. So he keeps making connections - with the future, with his God and, when the summer heat wanes, with other people. One day, Emmett has news for his psychologist: he's become romantic with a woman, an old friend.
"I'm an old bachelor, and I'm back," he says.
An Austin dentist who reads about Emmett in the paper drives up to Temple in a red sports car with presents and an invitation to a wedding party. Emmett rents a tuxedo and toasts the groom.
Sometimes Emmett watches a neighbor pacing the hallways, seldom venturing out of the building. Emmett notices a slight disfigurement on the man's face and wonders if the man is embarrassed.
He decides, when the time is right, they'll have a talk.
"Sometimes you just can't help what happens," Emmett says. "If it's a birth defect, it's not your fault. I think a person shouldn't do themselves like that.
"I'm not gonna do myself like that. The fight ain't easy. But I try to hang on."
October 11, 1990
Fire destroys apartment complex. Daughter Diathia "Pookie" Jackson dies. Emmett Jackson and wife, Diathia Reeder, are taken in critical condition to Brackenridge Hospital. Later, they are airlifted to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
October 27, 1990
Diathia Reeder dies at the Brooke burn unit. Emmett remains for nine more months, mostly in acute care. Undergoes dozens of surgeries, including amputations, removal of dead tissue, and skin grafts.
Transfers to Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio. Treatment team headed by physician includes physical and occupational therapists, counselors and a dietitian.
Transfers temporarily to St. Luke's Lutheran Hospital in San Antonio (now St. Luke's Baptist Hospital). Undergoes additional surgeries, including eyelid, lip and chin reconstruction.
Returns to RIOSA.
Released from RIOSA and moves to hometown Temple. Receives outpatient treatment, including psychological counseling, at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center.