BOWLING GREEN — The day was warm and clear when Hillvue Heights Church Lead Pastor Steve Ayers and his wife Elizabeth were prepping their boat for weekend fun at Barren River Lake like they’ve done many times before, but little did they know that warm, clear day on June 9 would change everything in their life forever.
As they were prepping, they realized the boat battery was dead so Steve Ayers went to hook up the battery charger while Elizabeth was busy with a different area of the houseboat. He said the battery charger should not be hooked up in an area where there is a possibility of open fumes, and the boat had been filled with gas earlier that day. What they didn’t know was there was an apparent leak in the hose that led to the gas tank.
Steve Ayers said he smelled gas, but he assumed someone must have spilled gas on the outside, so he hooked up the charger and it began to click. He leaned down without unplugging the charger to check the connection and once he wiggled it there was a spark, a whooshing sound and a blast.
Elizabeth Ayers said with her husband being in a partially enclosed area, it contained the fire and it swirled around him.
“The fumes blew up and that lasted about two seconds and that burned 60 percent of my body,” he said. “I was at the lake so I was in a pair of swimming trunks, flip-flops, sunglasses and a visor. So I didn’t have a lot of fire protective clothing on.”
As soon as she heard the blast, Elizabeth Ayers ran to the top and saw Steve Ayers jump to the dock and yell for everyone to get off and out of their boats.
“I was kind of in shock, it had just blown me up and so I got out of there and I threw the hatch down because I’m sitting on about 250 gallons of gas,” he said.
Steve Ayers ran behind his wife the quarter- to half-mile to their truck on pure adrenaline. She said his hands, legs and everything were shredded at this point, and she drove from Barren River Lake to The Medical Center in 30 minutes. He was prepped in the emergency room and then he had to be life flighted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Steve Ayers said he was awake from the time it happened to when they landed in the emergency room at Vanderbilt. Later they were told because of his health and not inhaling any fumes, he was able to maintain and not go into shock until they got to the hospital.
The first 72 hours after you have burned more than 30 percent of your body mass is critical, Elizabeth Ayers said. Once they got to Vanderbilt they started the debridement process that had to be done every day to remove the burned skin. Everything was burned on his body except the soles of his feet, the area where he was wearing his Under Armour, which was used for autograft and skin surgeries, one part of his chest on the right side and part of his back, Elizabeth Ayers said. He lost all his hair except for where he had a visor, and his sunglasses protected his eyes.
“I’m very fortunate, the Lord was with me,” he said. “I mean it would have been very easy for that to be my last day on the planet.”
Following the 72 hours, Ayers started having surgery, and so far he’s had four surgeries with another one scheduled after Thanksgiving. They had to use pig skin for his legs as covering until his own skin could produce new cells, because he didn’t have enough skin for grafts for the rest of his body.
The doctor expected him to be in the hospital for 60 days, but he got out after only 23 days and does his rehabilitation at home since his wife is a registered nurse. He does occupational therapy and physical therapy every day and wears a full compression suit.
“I call it my special underwear,” Ayers said. “People ask me how long I have to wear it, and I tell them 23 out of 24 hours of the day. What they don’t understand is when you’re burned you don’t mind having it on because it’s kind of like an extra layer of skin. I feel a little more safe.”
He said he did have post-traumatic stress disorder because for a while even the smell of gasoline would make him break into a sweat.
Elizabeth Ayers reflected on the incident and remembered when it happened she went straight into the zone of being a nurse and processing what she needed to do to help her husband.
“A lot of people always wonder what are you going to do if that happens to you or are you going to freak out or lose it, but I just know when it happened I just went to that zone,” she said. “I hadn’t worked in those units in a while, but it’s as if everything I had remembered and had been trained for” came back.
“It took a lot of prayer to get through that because I knew the writing on the wall and I couldn’t really discuss that with the kids or anybody that night because I knew he may not make it,” she said. “I didn’t want to worry the world with that.”
Steve Ayers said that if June 9 would have been his last day, he did good on the last day. He sent a nice text to his daughter, he was good to his son, he said great things to his wife and it was a beautiful day. He joked that if it was his day to go he was making a good grade on that particular day.
The incident has brought Steve and Elizabeth Ayers closer together, and what he’s learned from it is that little things are important, people are important, be kind and do the best to be who you have been made to be. Steve Ayers had no fear of death, and that came from his spiritual faith and understanding.
Back to the pulpit
Ayers returned to the pulpit Sept. 10 and said he had some fear that he wouldn’t be able to preach and minister to the congregation like he did before the fire.
“There was some fear. Am I going to be able to do this? Am I going to have the stamina? I’ve been preaching all my life, but there was a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I knew I looked a little bit different, not that it matters, but it’s there in your conscious.”
Ayers said it was good to be back in the pulpit because that was the longest he hadn’t preached since he was 18 years old. The church has always been a priority for him. Even before he was transported by helicopter to Vanderbilt, he asked his wife to call and hold the phone while he spoke to co-lead pastor Jamie Ward to let him know he wasn’t going to be there Sunday.
“I’m not realizing my face has peeled off, my hair burned off on the side with patches and I’m just talking to everybody and I just think I’m me,” he said. “Now I knew my hands were bad. …
“I’m grateful and I’m glad I’m still able to preach here,” he said.
Both Steve and Elizabeth Ayers want to make a point to remind people of fire safety. He said the things you’ve done a thousand times are what get you. Fire surrounds us more than we think it does. It’s as simple as having a smoke alarm in your house and making sure you check the battery, he said.
“This is something that added to my life, it didn’t take away,” he said. “Pain is a part of life, and the reason people have so many problems is because they think there can be a life without pain.”
(Reprinted with permission: Bowling Green Daily News.)