Burn victims tell of bonfire as suspect eludes probe

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

and Callie Clark ~ Southeast Missourian

As victims and witnesses recover and recall their horrifying stories of what happened at Friday night's bonfire explosion in rural Cape Girardeau County, investigators still don't know who is to blame.

"We're interviewing a bunch more now," said Lt. David James of the sheriff's department. "But we don't have a smoking gun, which leads us to believe it was an intentional act. Obviously the person who did it is afraid of the consequences."

Nineteen-year-old Ben Fadler of Old Appleton was among those injured at the explosion outside a house on County Road 621, suffering second-degree burns on his face, neck and right hand. He was standing about five feet from the fire when the explosion occurred around 11 p.m.

"I didn't see it, but I heard and felt it," he said "I was instantly engulfed in flames. That's all I could see, just flames everywhere."

When the gas can blew up, guest Emily Wessell was thrown onto her back.

"After I was knocked to the ground, I had no idea what had just happened," she said. "I thought that a car had exploded."

She searched herself afterward for burns, but found she was unharmed.

"After I got up, all that I could see was that half of the people there that night were engulfed in flames," she said. "It was just like the movies -- stunt men running around with fire waving their arms through the air."

Most guests were underage and may be afraid of getting into trouble for being at a party where alcohol was served, but James said investigations are focusing on the explosion and he hopes more will come forward to talk about what they saw.

"That's not the real case here," he said. "We're not looking to issue a hundred tickets for those who were drinking and are underage."

More than a dozen people were seriously burned when someone tossed a five-gallon gasoline can into a bonfire. One 19-year-old Jackson woman was airlifted to St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis for treatment of second- and third-degree burns. The rest were treated and released by local hospitals.

The crowd consisted of about 75 to 100 teenagers and young adults. Attempts to contact the party's hosts, Jonathon Edwards, 19, Tyler Gerlach, 19, and James McGee, 20, for comment have been unsuccessful.

As Wessell searched for one of her friends, she watched a panic set in among people in the crowd.

"The screeches of the girls that were burning were horrid," she said. "... If people hadn't had on Carhardts and thick coats, there'd be a lot more of them burned."

Wessell said someone had to purposely throw the can into the fire because the crowd was standing "leg to leg" around it.

"I have no idea who would do something like this, and I don't understand how nobody can fess up to who did it, because somebody needs to pay," she said.

Rolling in snow

Fadler's sweatshirt and gloves caught fire after the explosion, and he tried to pull the sweatshirt over his head.

"I ended up ripping it half off and rolling around in the snow," he said. "It happened so quick, I didn't have any thoughts of what to do. It was chaos. Everyone was crying and screaming."

Fadler also didn't see who threw the can but believes it was thrown from the opposite side of the fire from where he was standing. He waited until Saturday morning before going to Southeast Missouri Hospital for treatment.

"When I woke up, my face was swollen and covered with large blisters," he said. "There was dead skin hanging off my face and neck."

Despite the severity of his burns, Fadler said he was never in pain. He has trouble moving his neck because the skin is tight, and his lips are so blistered and swollen that he has to break up his food before he eats it.

On Monday, Fadler spoke with a local plastic surgeon who told him the burns will take two to four weeks to heal and that his face will remain discolored for about a year.

Fadler said doctors told him there shouldn't be any scarring, but there is a possibility the wounds on the back of his neck might require skin grafts.

"I probably won't be playing around any fires for awhile," Fadler said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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