BIBLE HILL - The fact that Michael Gaultois is alive is nothing short of miraculous.
And when he details the horrific fire that ripped away his flesh, almost stole his eye sight and left him with third-degree burns to almost 90 per cent of his body, people listen intently.
About 80 people gathered at the Bible Hill fire hall on Wednesday night to listen to the 37-year-old Gander, Nfld. resident, who shared how his life changed on March 25, 1991, at the age of 15, when he and three friends went to a camp they had built deep in the woods in Irishtown, Nfld.
The shack didn't have running water, nor did it have a fire extinguisher or smoke detector and it only had one door and a single window.
"It was a trap ... and we were warned many times that it wasn't safe," Gaultois said. "That particular night my grandmother said, ‘Don't go up there, you are going to get burned.'"
Ignoring a gut feeling, and submitting to peer pressure, Gaultois went to the make-shift camp. It was a decision that nearly cost his life when a candle that wasn't in a proper holder tipped over and set the sofa on fire.
"My 13-year-old friend did die. I was half asleep when it happened ... all I could think of was I was trapped and could die. I couldn't get out the window until the fire burned all my clothes off and I could fit through easier," he said. "The fire was so intense it didn't hurt as much as you'd think because it deadened my nerves."
With the help of the Shriners, Gaultois had about $2 million of treatment in a Boston hospital, including about 50 surgeries and six months of painful recovery.
"I prayed to God to let me die," he said.
"My eyes were sewn closed (to deal with damaged corneas) ... I had to be fed, showered, I couldn't wipe myself, I had to learn to walk again. I was ashamed, embarrassed and had survivor's guilt."
Gaultois endured two years wrapped "from head to foot like a mummy" in pressure garments and wearing a face mask. He also lost some of his fingertips and parts of his thumbs.
However, there were turning points during Gaultois' recovery. One moment was when Gaultois was leaving rehab.
"I heard the scream of a baby who was badly burned. It was trying to grab the crib bars with no fingers because they had been burned. That's when I decided I wanted to be an advocate for fire prevention and rise up from the ashes to rebuild my life."
In October 1991, Gaultois returned home and started over. He became a teenage father to son Ryan, now 18, and graduated from high school at the top of his class in 1997. Gaultois has since married (wife Melanie) and is a full-time motivational speaker and volunteers with a burn camp for children.
"I'm very grateful to have a second chance. It's pretty amazing what you can achieve when you believe in yourself and surround yourself with positive people."
Gaultois is thrilled with the positive feedback he receives from the communities and schools he visits. His message is always turning a bad situation into a good one and being a blessing to others.
Thomas Pearson, 17, was at the Wednesday night session.
"I was shocked to hear what he went through. You don't know what it's like to live through something like that until it's too late," said the Valley teenager who is a volunteer firefighter with Valley-Kemptown and District Fire Brigade.
"It will make me watch out for things even more and I'll tell others about this."
Brookfield's Beverly Gibbons was also deeply touched by Gaultois' journey.
"It was so inspirational. I had chills and tears listening," said Gibbons. "It makes you think about (safety) and life differently."
Top causes of residential fires in Canada
1. Smoking material
3. Heating equipment
4. Electrical equipment
Statistics from the Canadian Association of Fire Marshals from the mid-1990s
• Every two seconds a fire occurs.
• Every 21 seconds someone is burned.
• Every 55 seconds a home will burn.
• Every 30 minutes a home fire is reported to the fire department.
• Someone in Canada dies in a home fire roughly every 35 hours.
* Statistics from www.firebusters.com