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Burn victim returns as vocal grilling safety ally

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- (Editor's note: If you have more questions about fire/grilling safety, please call the Whiteman Fire Emergency Services fire prevention section. Call Paul Williams at (660) 687-6083 or Tim Robinson (660) 687-6080.)

Hannah Storm's speedy return to TV just weeks after suffering burns from a propane gas grill explosion might have had some viewers assuming she'd made a miraculous recovery.

Storm, who anchors ESPN's SportsCenter, was injured in December at her home in Connecticut, and a month after the incident it was clear that she was anything but fully recovered. NFPA Journal visited her in January at the cable sports network's studio in Bristol, Connecticut, where she taped grilling-safety public service announcements for NFPA and talked about adjusting to her new role as burn survivor.

She cringed in pain and swallowed a painkiller before the interview, and unwrapped a white bandage on her left hand to reveal prominent burns still undergoing the healing process. She was quick to note that her unblemished face and well-styled hair are the products of extensive time in ESPN's hair and makeup department -- and that the hair isn't even her own, since she lost much of hers in the accident. Also not apparent on air is the emotional pain brought on by her injuries.

Storm, 50, continues to heal with help from her three children and her husband, NBC sportscaster Dan Hicks. It seems that her advocacy work and her willingness to be candid about her injuries are already making an impact on public safety. One of her Twitter followers recently tweeted, "Last night [the] flame on my grill blew out. Never had it happen before, but glad to hear your story so I didn't try to restart."

NFPA Journal talked with Storm about her injuries and her decision to spread the fire safety message.

Walk us through the night of the gas grill explosion.
It was Dec. 11, a typically busy day. I was rushing to get dinner on the table. I went outside and turned my grill on. I had a few pork tenderloins I had been marinating. I walked back [into the house], making the rest of the dinner, getting the table set, then went back outside. It was a very chilly night. I noticed the wind had blown the grill's flame out. I turned the gas off. The lid of the grill had been open the whole time. I went to restart the grill, and I turned the gas on just a tiny bit, hit the igniter, and it blew.

It was an explosion, a fireball like you would see in the movies. I remember seeing it come right at me. The force of the blow is something I don't remember, because the next thing I do remember is actually looking down and seeing that I was on fire. The explosion was so great that it blew the doors off the grill. My neighbor, way across the street, thought the explosion was actually a tree falling through his own roof. That's how powerful the explosion was. I remember seeing the fire and then being on fire and rushing to put it out.

How did you put it out?
I instinctively closed my eyes after I saw the fireball, which saved my corneas. They were singed, but they will repair. As I saw that I was on fire, I knew that my oldest daughter was in the kitchen setting the table, so I yelled to her, "Mommy's on fire. Call 911." My thought was to remove an article of clothing. I ripped my shirt off with my left hand. My hair was on fire, and I took the end of the shirt that wasn't on fire and put the fire out on my head. I rushed to the sink and started splashing water on myself, anything to put out the heat, anything to put out the pain that was like nothing I've ever experienced. At that point, I was literally out of my skin, just jumping around the house. I couldn't even sit still because it hurt so badly as I waited for the emergency personnel to get there.

What were your injuries?
I had first-degree burns on my face and neck. I lost quite a bit of hair. [She fingers a few strands of hair.] This is all hair extensions, which I have because I work on TV, and also my middle daughter was more comfortable with me looking like a mom. I had second-degree burns on my chest and both of my hands. It's still painful. The thing about burn pain is that it really takes you back to the moment of the injury. Burns have a personality, they have a memory of their own. Every burn was different, every spot was different and was treated differently, progressed differently. I'm so fortunate there were no skin grafts, no third-degree burns, no cornea transplants. [She lifts her hair again.] This is the result of a lot of extensive hair and makeup. This isn't normal, what I look like right now.

What did your burn treatment consist of?
I was taken to a burn center, and I think the single most difficult thing that happens when you are a burn victim is debridement, which is the actual scraping off of all the dead tissue of the wounded area. It's terrifying, it's extraordinarily painful, and it's necessary for the healing process. Imagine being burned and then having that area of your body scraped off. I had a lot of different kinds of dressings to treat the different wounds.

What's the lesson here?
I didn't read my grill safety instructions. I didn't know the safety procedures, and most people don't know them. The hood of the grill was open. I assumed the propane had dissipated into the air. It didn't occur to me that propane is heavier than air, which I now know. If your flame goes out for any reason, turn the gas off and wait at least 15 minutes. What happened was that the propane accumulated near the grill. That's what it does. This wasn't a grill defect. I did not treat my grill with the proper amount of respect and care that I should have. I should have sat down and read how to operate it.

As a news anchor, what is it like to be the story versus reporting a story?
I felt it was important not to talk about my injury for a while because I thought that the healing aspects of it were critical. I wasn't able to do much because burns are incredibly fatiguing injuries. For a while, I wasn't able to get out in public. But I did feel it was important to share this story because it was a very simple mistake that I made, and a very common mistake. Most of the people I know really don't understand proper procedures to follow when a grill goes out. I don't want this to happen to anybody else. I just can't bear anybody else going through this.

Interview condensed and edited by Fred Durso, Jr., and Scott Sutherland.