It’s been 46 years since the accident, and Phil Tammaro isn’t sure what he remembers or what he's been told, but he knows he covered his face to protect it from the fire.
“My fingers are burned,” he said, holding his hands to his face. “You can see here - third degree burns.”
Tammaro was a mischievous toddler. He escaped his crib at nap time and made his way down to the basement, where he found the gas can for the lawnmower and “watered” the cement floor with gasoline.
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The building fumes found a flashpoint in the hot water heater and exploded. Wearing just a diaper - in a ring of fire - Tammaro suffered third degree burns over 35 percent of his body.
“Both my legs, my feet, my right arm, and then I have patches all over my body,” he recalled.
There was a saving grace. It was 1971, and his local hospital knew enough to rush him to the recently-opened Shriners Burn Hospital in Boston.
“I wouldn’t have survived... no,” said Tammaro, shaking his head. “I had infections, I had convulsions, high fevers. My parents went through that. Every day, asking, ‘Is he going to survive?’”
Shriners saved his life and his legs, which he said would likely have been amputated without the specialty care. Without legs, he could never have become a firefighter.
“I would have had to have gotten a real job, I guess," he said with a laugh.
He’s got a real job and a real calling. He's a Billerica firefighter, working in the same firehouse that answered the call for his fire decades earlier. He's the town's fire safety educator and travels the country promoting the value of burn centers. And he's a tireless volunteer at Shriners.
We joined Tammaro on a recent visit. He sat with a 12-year-old girl from Belize named Michelle. She was hurt in a household accident two years ago.
With burns over 50 percent of her body, Michelle has been back and forth to Shriners for surgeries and treatment.
“I miss my friends, I miss my family," she told Tammaro quietly.
Michelle and Tamarro play Jenga. They talk doctors and surgeries, swans and snow. He is an affable playmate, poking fun at his own skills. She helps where she can.
“I think you have these ones here,” she said, pointing out an easy Jenga move.
“Ooooh!” delights Tammaro. “Thank you!”
As they chat, there is no mention of the scars they both wear inside and out, although Tammaro says scars tell a person’s story.
We ask what story his scars tell. “I’m resilient,” he said. “I’m resilient.”
The Jenga tower crashed down. Michelle gloated, “I won again!” Tammaro ducked his head.
“I know. I know,” he said.
Knocked down, getting up, reaching out.