On visits to her parents' house, Nina Montgomery passes the photo of herself as a teen-ager, the framed image of a smooth-skinned young girl with big eyes full of optimism.
She feels no kinship to the teen-ager. She used to carry a picture like that in her wallet to show people what Nina Montgomery looked like before the accident. But at 25, eight years after the accident, she doesn't think that matters anymore.
What matters now is her career as a singer and dancer, her winning the Metro Talent Search's "vocal soloist-nonclassical" category a few weeks ago and her determination to be a performer.
"When I realized I wanted to dance and sing, I knew I would have to make people look at me differently," said Montgomery, who after 15 operations and years of therapy still has skin that varies in color and texture, eyelids that droop and hands that are misshapen.
"I have to capture people's attention," Montgomery said, "get them to get past me and see my dance or hear my song."
Montgomery, an Adelphi resident, struts and strolls under spotlights, belting out pop songs or raspy blues tunes, most recently at talent night at Mr. Henry's Adams-Morgan on Columbia Road NW in the District. At other times, she is dancing, performing contemporary jazz or African dance with a local company.
Her life changed Dec. 28, 1978. The circumstances are etched forever in her memory. Nina Montgomery, then 17, and her mother, Alberta W. Montgomery, were returning to their Chesapeake, Va., home after a shopping spree. Alberta Montgomery drove into the garage and closed the door, and the two walked outside. Nina Montgomery's sister ran up to them to say that she smelled gas and thought that it was coming from the garage.
They all went back to investigate.
"There was a flash," Nina Montgomery recalled. "I didn't know what had happened, but I remember the garage door lifted about a foot, and my mom said later that she pulled me out."
Alberta Montgomery was also burned, though not as badly as Nina. As it turned out, the car had struck a gas pipe. Gas leaked into the garage, and when the door was lifted, oxygen mixed with the gas, causing the heater to explode.
"I remember lying on the ground and looking at my hands," Nina Montgomery said. "They were white and looked like the skin was peeled off."
Her next recollection is of waking up in the intensive care unit of a hospital on New Year's Eve. "I was really heavily sedated," she said. "I was listening to the radio and my family was there. I remember thinking how glad I was to be alive and have everybody there with me. At midnight, I heard 'Auld Lang Syne' on the radio and I started singing."
She did not know yet that she had received burns on 60 percent of her body, most of them third-degree. The first joint of each finger on her right hand was gone. The thumb was the only digit remaining on her left hand. Months of painful treatments followed.
She was in the hospital a couple of months before she saw her face. One day, after the bandages had been removed, a nurse parked the gurney on which Montgomery was lying just under a mirror. The teen-ager sat up and peeped at her reflection.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know who this is,' " she said. "I looked around but I didn't see anybody else. Then it dawned on me that that was me.
"I didn't cry. I was more shocked than anything," she said. "That same day was the first time the bandages came off my hands and I realized my fingers were shorter on my right hand. I told my sister when she came to visit, and I asked her why no one had told me. She just looked at me and said, 'Well, you still have hands, don't you?' It wasn't said in a cruel way, but just in a way that told me to count my blessings."
It was her family and friends and a staff of wonderful therapists, she said, who boosted her when her spirits were low. For a while, life was one major trial after another.
"I was sitting outside the emergency room one day when I saw the mother of a friend," Montgomery said. "I recognized her, but she didn't recognize me. She seemed shocked by me, but she didn't know who I was.
"Another time, while I was still in intensive care, I asked a male nurse how badly I had been hurt. He said, 'Pretty badly.' I asked him if I would be able to attend my high school graduation. He told me to promise that I wouldn't cry if he told me the truth. I promised; he told me no, and I cried. But then I told a dirty joke and we both laughed."
On June 12, 1979, not quite six months after the accident, Montgomery marched up to the stage at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake to receive her diploma. Her classmates and teachers and an audience of friends and relatives stood and cheered.
She was able to keep up with her class, she said, because of one tutor, an English teacher and former beauty queen whom Montgomery had always thought of as "gorgeous and perfect," a person she was sure would be of no help to her.
"Everyone hated her class because she was hard," Montgomery said. "I had this impression of her as a bitch. But in that hospital we got to be good friends. She encouraged me a good deal. Without her I couldn't have made it."
Before the accident, Montgomery had been dating. "But it wasn't serious," she said. "He liked me better than I liked him. He left later, after the accident, and I was mad about it at first. Then I realized it didn't matter because I was going to dump him anyway."
By graduation, Montgomery was wearing a jobst, something resembling a ski mask that pulled the skin together on her face, forcing it to heal more smoothly. "The best thing about it was that it kept me warm in the winter," she said.
But the jobst became a real mask for Montgomery, a protection for her to hide behind. After graduation, the only place she went was to the movies. "It became a ritual . . . . There was one near the house," she said. "I love the movies, and I could sneak in and sit in the dark."
She enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk so she could stay near the Navy medical facilities where she received treatments.
"I wanted to major in dance, but my mom was fearful I would never make it, so she encouraged me to go into art, which I loved," said Montgomery, who did not get involved in social activities at the school until her junior year.
She had not been on stage since her accident, but at the urging of two dance instructors, she performed, taught children and faced her fears.
Now she works as a receptionist for a District law firm and spends her evenings and weekends studying and performing. "Since I am disfigured and not real slim, it's four times as difficult for me to get accepted at auditions. It has been harder than I thought it would be."
She dances with the Memory of African Culture Performing Company and has danced with the student company of The Dance Place. Singing is a talent she shared only around the house until recently. Then, on May 23, she stood on stage at Constitution Hall and wowed hundreds of people with her rendition of "Low Down Blues."
"If I can get people to look at me differently, maybe they will look at other people and each other differently," Montgomery said. "Maybe that's why all of this has happened to me."