What was supposed to have been an evening hanging out with friends around a fire pit in a South Hill backyard instead became a life-changing experience for Nikole Williams, 31. It was late March, and the damp debris in the pit wouldn’t catch fire. Williams got a can with gasoline and began to pour it on the smoldering fire.
“Next thing I knew the flames were coming up the stream of gas and into the can,” Williams said. There was only a little gas left in the can, yet the fire ignited the gas fumes and the can exploded, setting Williams on fire. “I knew I had to drop and roll. I tried. It didn’t work.”
Her boyfriend, Kameron Smith, 25, ran to her and began pulling off her burning clothes.
Smith and a friend rolled Williams on the ground, but the synthetic clothes she was wearing reignited every time they thought it was out.
“She just wouldn’t go out,” Smith said, with tears in his eyes. “It was probably just 15 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.”
Neighbors came running because they heard the loud explosion, and 911 was called immediately.
Within minutes Smith had Williams inside and in a cold shower.
“Strangely, I was the calmest one in the middle of all of it,” Williams said. “I remember telling the neighbors to go home because we would be OK.”
She arrived at the trauma unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center maybe 15 minutes after the explosion; both said it couldn’t have gone any faster.
Yet the fire had taken a big bite out of the right side of Williams’ abdomen, burned her right hand and arm, and zinged her chest. Smith said there was talk at one point about flying Williams to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“She was burned over 17 percent of her body. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is,” Smith said. He stayed awake for most of the six days Williams was in the hospital. “I tried to sleep but all [I] could hear was her screaming.”
Williams’ plans to start school at Spokane Community College on April 1 were canceled.
Unemployed at the time, Williams has no health insurance. When surgeons proposed a skin graft, she turned it down because she didn’t know how she’d pay for it.
Weeks later, when part of the cost of the graft was covered by Spokane County Medical Society’s Project Access, which covers medical costs for low-income, uninsured residents, Williams said yes to the painful surgery. But by then, surgeons determined her healing had progressed too far.
“They said it wasn’t worth it putting me through the pain now,” Williams said. “But if I had said yes initially, then my healing would have been further ahead today.”
She no longer receives unemployment because she can’t work or look for work until she has healed completely. She was denied any other public assistance except food stamps.
Now the young couple is struggling to pay the medical and hospital bills, and basic living expenses such as rent.
“I don’t like to ask for help, but it gets to that point in your life where you don’t have a choice,” Williams said quietly, adding that she has great support from her family.
Smith set up a donation page on the website GiveForward and they are hoping to raise $10,000.
The site has been open for almost a month, but not even $1,000 has trickled in.
“I don’t know,” Smith said, shrugging. “She just fell through all the cracks.”
Smith is working part time and looking for full-time work, juggling that and taking care of Williams. The couple had to move in the middle of everything.
“It’s just been rough. It’s been a lot of ups and downs the last six weeks,” Williams said. “But we have the best friends. They have helped us so much. And they paid for our move.”