Faith and love outlive the flames
by Sherrie Norris
On March 3, 2006, he received third-degree burns on 95 percent of his body in a Texas oil rig explosion. His doctors told his wife, A'Leta, that he would not live. She was convinced that God would not let him die.
Six years later, McDaniel, a Mississippi native, is alive and relatively well, but bears little, if any resemblance, to the man in his wedding pictures.
His face, nose and lips have been rebuilt, he lost his ears and most of his trunk and his extremities required extensive skin grafts, but his wife still stands by his side.
McDaniel's internal organs were spared and his spiritual heart has only grown stronger.
He is determined to let the world know that he is a product of God's miraculous healing power — and that the faith and prayers of his family, friends, and countless others, were not in vain.
The McDaniels moved to the High Country nearly three years ago; the cool air is conducive to his comfort — and to the continued healing of mind, body and spirit for his entire family, which includes 12-year-old daughter, Carney.
McDaniel and A'Leta have written a book about the accident and how it transformed their lives. “Dead Man Breathing” is being released this week. They have also formed a nonprofit organization from which they share the extraordinary and restorative power of God's love.
Prior to March 2006, McDaniel was “a man's man,” he said. At 6 feet, 230 pounds, he was a typical southern boy from a small Mississippi town. No stranger to hard knocks and good times; every one knew him and most counted him as a friend — or at least respected him.
He and A'Leta were living the American dream. They weren't perfect, they said, but they had a solid marriage, a beautiful little girl, a nice home, cars, jobs, they attended church, had a lot of friends and enjoyed life.
McDaniel was an only child who had grown up “quick,” he said. He lived with his mother after his parents divorced and felt especially isolated after his father remarried.
“I quit school and went to work. I partied at night, but during the day, I worked hard.”
After he and A'Leta were married, he took a job in the oil field as a way to make a better life for his family. A'Leta co-owned a successful hair and nail salon.
March 3, 2006, started as a typical 12-hour workday on the rig for McDaniel, in Nacogdoches, Tex., six hours from his Florence, Miss. home.
Harnessed on a platform, about 90 feet off the rig floor, he was “working the derricks,” he said, when a blowout prevention piece, located directly below him, failed.
“I saw the fire erupt from the well and shoot straight toward me,” he said “There was nothing I could do to avoid it.”
Quickly engulfed in flames, McDaniel tried fighting the fire with his hands, while searching for an escape. He was trapped. The fire intensified, as did his cries for help. It happened so quickly, but seemed forever, he said.
“Ironically, I remember the colors of the fire,” he said. “It's amazing that something so beautiful can be so devastating.”
He remembered the drills and safety precautions, but they all worked against him, he said.
His body was an inferno, the searing pain ravaged his body. He tried unsuccessfully to jump — to safety or death — while continuing to beat himself in an effort to extinguish the flames.
“Muscle and skin and were flying off me in chunks and flakes, my hard hat melted off my head and dripped onto my face and blood and other fluids poured from my raw, exposed body.”
A quick death, he said, would have been a relief.
“When my driller, Billy Humble, got up to me, I asked him to take care of my family; he said he would. For him to start praying, I knew it had to be bad.”
McDaniel went from wanting to die to wanting to live, “from cussing to praying,” he said, “with a pretty good understanding of what the Vietnam vets went through in the foxholes.”
McDaniel remained mobile and conscious until he was in the ambulance, enroute to the hospital. “After that, I was out for two weeks,” he said.
McDaniel had been immediately airlifted to the burn center in Shreveport, La.
When A'Leta arrived soon afterward, she learned of his “zero chance” of survival.
“The doctor told me everything possible had been done for him,” she said, “but that Jack had three things going for him — he was young, in good physical shape and had God.”
When A'Leta asked the doctor if he believed in God and miracles, he said that he did. “So, I told him that God would not let Jack die. That's when he told me that it was out of his control, but said he would pray with me and he told me to get everyone I knew to pray, too,” she said.
A'leta said she wasn't upset visibly — except for the first time she saw Jack. “It's impossible to describe how he looked — but it wasn't human.”
No one could believe he lived through the night — or into the next day. After 72 hours, surgical procedures began.
“For weeks I was in a coma, my eyes were sewn shut, tubes of all kinds were in my mouth and body,” McDaniel said. “I've had over 120 surgeries. I suffered depression and pain beyond description. There was no dignity left. I could do nothing for myself — I was no longer a man. The first time I saw myself in the mirror, I wished that I had died. I knew that my little girl would think I was a monster. I didn't want her or my wife to deal with it.”
He is convinced that God carried him through “for a reason,” he said. “And, A'Leta, the strongest woman I know, stayed by my side when she should've left and did things for me that no woman should have to do. At times, her voice and touch were all that could calm me down.”
The day his daughter squeezed his hand and said, ‘You still look real good,” was one of the best days of his life.
A'Leta cried when she was alone, she said. She kept a detailed journal, too, convinced that someday, the two of them would read it together.
Last year, the couple pooled those journal entries with McDaniel's personal memoirs to co-author, “Dead Man Breathing,” which has just been published by Winepress Publishing.
Billy Jack McDaniel is a true survivor. The physical pain remains intense at times, but on the inside, he said, is a peace that comes with each new day.
This tragedy will not define who we are or have control over us,” said A'Leta. “It made us better, and we are sharing it with others to give the next person a ray of hope for their challenge.”
They are doing it through the Billy Jack McDaniel Foundation.
“God spared my life for a reason,” McDaniel said. “God has given us a unique opportunity to impact the kingdom and to bring Him glory. I've got a strong testimony to share. If one life is changed and goes to heaven because I got burnt up, or because of something I say, then it's worth it. God spared my life so that I can use my tragedy to glorify Him.”
He was licensed to preach the gospel on Sep. 9, 2007.
“The fact that God has called us into the ministry is enough,” McDaniel said, “but, he expects no less from both my wife and me, to use this opportunity to tell of his greatness.”
McDaniel ministers to people of all ages — schools, churches, fire and rescue personnel, patients and staff in rehabilitation and burn units. He also conducts safety workshops for industries with dangerous work settings.
The McDaniels are members of Bethel Baptist Church in the Bethel community and of the Phoenix Society for Burn Victims.
To learn more about the McDaniel's nonprofit foundation, visit http://www.billyjackmcdaniel.org.
Tax-deductible donations to support the ministry may be mailed to P.O. Box 784 Valle Crucis, NC 28691