He stands 5-foot-10. The tan panel above him measures a foot or so higher. It is well within range of the screws in his right hand, the plastic triangle in his left. All Joe Morgan Jr. must do is reach up and thread the screws through the triangle and onto the panel.
He could just as easily try to touch the moon.
Pain shadows his face. He has raised one arm nearly over his head, and slowly the other tries to follow. Each vertical inch is a triumph over the unyielding, mottled skin that now covers much of his body. Skin thick and opaque-white with scars. Skin imprinted with the honeycomb of grafted tissue. Skin that would rather tighten and contract than allow this 37-year-old firefighter the sweet freedom to brush his hair or tie his shoes.
"Stretch it out," a therapist's voice commands, interrupting the agony. Morgan's fingers fumble, but finally the triangle is in position, finally the first screw is on, is secure. Two more to go.
Almost half a year has passed since Morgan charged into the thick blackness of a Northeast Washington town house, oxygen on his back, experience on his shoulders, the fear he always carries into a fire in the back of his mind--yet even with all that, no sense that this midnight call would be anything but routine.
Three minutes later, three routine-turned-desperate minutes later, he crawled alone out the front door, following the umbilical of his hose line, fleeing a heat so intense and inexplicable that officials still call it simply "the event." He survived, but two others did not. For city firefighters, the deaths were the greatest loss of life from a single incident since 1911.
Many thought they would bury a third man that week.
Catastrophic horror is visited upon burn victims. Their injuries are assessed in degrees and percentages, each number notching the danger higher like the alarms of a fire. Morgan arrived at the emergency room as much dead as alive, with second- and third-degree burns over more than 60 percent of his body. Patients in such condition frequently don't make it. Some succumb quickly; others die when massive bacterial infection sets in. For those who do live, the disfigurement may be lasting. The hurt can last forever.
Morgan understood little about what lay ahead when he escaped that town house-turned-blast furnace May 30. He was thinking solely of his family. How many times had he dismissed his son's worries about him dying on the job? "That'll never happen," he had reassured the boy. "It's so many of us that respond to a fire, there's always somebody there to get you out if you get into trouble."
He crawled out the front door. Out of one hell and into another.
Healing Body and Soul He'd be back at Engine 26 tomorrow if he could.
Even after months in the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, most in intensive care. Even after 14 surgeries--the 14th in October to graft skin onto both elbows, one knee and his head.
"I chose to be where I was that night," Morgan says without bitterness. And were it only up to him, he would choose the same again.
Instead, twice a week or more, a driver from the D.C. fire department takes him from his house in Brentwood to rehabilitation sessions and doctors' appointments at the hospital. His time there is tedious and often excruciating.
Round-the-clock, he must wear a python-tight body stocking designed to force scars and flesh flat. The suit makes climbing onto a stationary bicycle an awkward ascent, and yet he gamely begins to pedal to rebuild his decimated legs. He works knees that ache deep within the joints. Skin tormented from the inside by pins-and-needles itching.
"Stretch it out," pushes therapist Dominique Leboucq.
Some mornings, Morgan strips to the waist, and a warm, aloe-enriched wax is rubbed onto the most fragile, tender areas of his shoulders and back. So much of this body was burned so severely that it's jarring to see a healthy stripe, supple and smooth, running down the spine. Perhaps that skin was protected under his oxygen tank, or insulated by air trapped within a fold of his suit. Beyond that, there is no explaining the pattern of destruction.
Except to note that it was not caused by flame. Heat alone killed Anthony Phillips and Louis Matthews. Heat alone nearly killed Joe Morgan. Like a ruthless, crushing force, "it just dropped down on top of us." Like nothing he had ever felt.
His hands were generally spared. And aside from the bright-pink crescent that extends from his left temple to above his chin--the classic brand of a firefighter's mask--so was his face. It is a mild and pleasant face, with expressive eyes, a wisp of a mustache and thin goatee. People remember it from the news reports. They come up to Morgan on the street, tell him how good he looks, how they were pulling for him. He is touched and gratified.
Yet on the afternoons when the pain drags him down, when he waits frustrated, lonely hours for the nurse and aide who arrive daily to change his dressings and help him shower, little provides solace. In the mirror, he sees what others do not.
"This burnt guy," he says. Or harsher, "a freak from a side show."
He wonders if he'll ever be well again. It is as close to self-pity as he comes. He tries to keep despair to himself, to hide it "behind closed doors." Or better, to push through the pain, as he has urged his son and namesake, 14-year-old Joseph, and his daughter, 4-year-old D'Juna, to do. He wants them proud of him for being strong.
"My spirit's still Joe," he says.
On his third or fourth day in intensive care, the distraught firefighters from Engine 26 caught a glimpse of that spirit. Morgan was bandaged like a mummy. His hands were wrapped clubs, just the tips of the fingers free. As his buddies prepared to leave, he gave them a thumbs-up. Lt. Michael Best knew immediately. Joe's going to beat this, he told himself.
These days, Morgan regularly stops by the fire station. From his small, green-shuttered house, it's a quick shot down 38th Avenue and onto Rhode Island Avenue. He enjoys catching up, joshing with the guys on his shift. They miss his easygoing humor.
"I had a dream about you the other night," one firefighter mentions.
"Did I have my clothes on?" Morgan deadpans.
Although the camaraderie remains, the visits are more bittersweet than his colleagues probably realize. Morgan's favorite pastime was shooting hoops out back of the station. He and Best used to be real rivals, and don't ask who has the better jump shot. For now, he watches from the sideline.
He can throw a basketball barely four feet.
'The Real Deal'
Not much has changed at Morgan's firehouse since that grim night. His lockers, Nos. 5 and 6, are as he left them; among the contents, a 1998 poster of model Tyra Banks, a basketball, a towel and some washcloths, two navy-blue uniforms. The lockers next to his, Nos. 7 and 8, belonged to Louis Matthews. Sympathy cards and pictures are taped on one of the doors.
It was the Memorial Day weekend when the men worked together for the final time. The unofficial start of summer. Morgan, who is divorced, was planning a vacation with his kids. He was thinking about Myrtle Beach.
A week of lying on the sand sounded good.
He had not been scheduled for duty, but when the firehouse called about an overtime shift, he said yes, and he also agreed to switch from his usual position as driver and ride "layout"--meaning to man a hose. Things weren't very busy. Then at 12:16 a.m., a box alarm came in for a basement fire in Fort Lincoln, and the wagon, on its way back from a medical run, turned around for the 3100 block of Cherry Road NE.
Morgan was sitting behind the driver as Engine 26 roared up to the address. He leaned over to his lineman.
"This is the real deal, baby. We're going to go get it."
"I'm ready," Matthews said.
They jumped off, and Morgan began laying out the hose to connect to the street hydrant. That done, he followed Matthews inside, feeling his way along the line. Listening and looking for fire. But he found only smoke, so dark and dense that both he and Matthews never saw the basement door. They were now about 20 feet into the small, two-story town house. In the living room, Morgan guessed, bumping a coffee table with his knee.
Something, though, seemed wrong. There was an eerie quiet, and the air felt frighteningly hot. Morgan shimmied inside his coat to move the temperature off him, to draw cooler air across his skin. He dropped down slightly. Nearby, he could hear Matthews and Tony Phillips from Engine 10 trying to do the same.
Then it hit.
Not a flashover, as would be reported that weekend, but a wedge of heat, ferocious in the extreme, that rushed up from the basement. Morgan remembers: "It was on top of me. I knew something was going bad. . . . I turned to Matthews and asked him if he had the line. I asked him where was the line, and he said he didn't know."
Both must have dropped the hose when the heat slammed down. "I told him we needed to find the line, because we needed to get out. . . . I started to crawl around, and I found it. I picked it up, and I shot some water at the ceiling. . . . I hit it a second time, and that's when I turned and crawled out."
Battalion Chief Damian Wilk remembers, too: Firefighters scrambling to escape. Morgan being pulled clear of the front door. His coat and pants were smoking. "Put a line on him," Wilk ordered, and water instantly was redirected. "Get the gear off of him."
Half a year later, an investigation continues into the thermodynamics of that night. A malfunction in a junction box wired to a basement fluorescent light sparked the blaze, but what caused such deadly temperatures, and how high they ultimately got, is still unclear.
The town house is as firefighters left it: charred and padlocked.
"It's the routine fires that get you," says Wilk. He stops. "It was the worst day of my life."
The Cost of Survival
At Washington Hospital Center, weeping men crowded the halls. Phillips was dead. Matthews was dying. Morgan was critical.
At Morgan's house, the phone rang.
Even as she sought to rouse herself from sleep, Myra Martin was struck by the utter fatigue in the caller's voice. He had few details about her brother, but she should come right away. Martin woke her nephew--the reason she was spending the night--and called Joe's girlfriend and an older sister, whose daughter had just come home from the senior prom. Joe's been in an accident, she said.
Morgan already was sedated and swollen beyond recognition by the time they all met at the hospital. Doctors gave him at best a 50 percent chance of living. They did not elaborate on the cost he'd have to pay.
The cost of twice-weekly surgery--or worse, of twice-daily dressing changes. Despite megadoses of narcotics, the process of washing damaged tissue and removing dead flesh felt like Brillo pad scouring raw nerve. The nurses would apologize for hurting him, and he would nod that he understood, and he would take deep breaths and focus hard on a picture of his little girl, and he would cry like a baby.
His initial requests and questions he spelled letter-by-letter in the air: n-u-r-s-e, or m-e-d-s, or h-o-w a-r-e y-o-u. "He continued to try and reassure us," says his girlfriend, Kim Gibson, who has known him since elementary school. He volunteered little about how much he was suffering, as if to protect those around him.
The truth is, it took a while for Morgan to grasp how badly he had been injured.
Badly enough to be on a respirator for most of June.
Badly enough that doctors worried he would lose a hand or foot, or both, because of circulatory damage and swelling.
Badly enough that too little good skin was left to cut and graft onto all the burned parts. The specialists turned to other skin: cadaver, pig, artificial. They pulled out all the technological stops. Surgeon James Jeng: "We're very proud of what we did for Joe." Technology, however, has its limits.
"He will forever and ever and ever know he's got those scars," Jeng says.
They run deeper than physical. In his hospital bed, Morgan endlessly relived the disaster. In his sleep, he heard the other firefighters' voices. He couldn't have saved Phillips, but Matthews? Did he desert him? Desperate for rest, he prayed to God to take the nightmare away.
And it stopped.
And slowly, the trajectory of his recovery improved. Gibson and his sisters kept a journal for him. They wrote about his first tentative steps around the nurses' station, about his constant visitors, about the glorious summer afternoon when they finally could wheel him outside. They wrote about the blood drives and prayer vigils firefighters held, about the little things his co-workers were doing around the house, about the laptop computer they arranged for his hospital room. In one month, his e-mail address logged more than 1,000 get-well messages.
By August, Morgan was past intensive care, focusing on the future. Doctors originally had predicted he would be hospitalized through October. He set his own goal: Aug. 25. Bandages and all, he wanted to go home on his birthday.
He beat that.
Two days early, without announcement or attention, a thin, stiff and supremely happy Joe Morgan walked out of Washington Hospital Center. Jeng was not that surprised. "I never underestimate the human will," he explains. A week later, the patient went home again--to the fire station. To say thank you.
Accepting the Future
"I was just a guy doing his job," he says.
After eight years of smoke and sirens and half a year of hell, that's a pretty humble assessment. Also inaccurate, according to someone who would like to see Morgan promoted to sergeant. He's an incredible person, Chief Wilk has decided. "They say God only gives you what you can handle, and he's handled this better than I ever could," he says.
Morgan stumbled into firefighting. A Washington native, he signed up for the Navy and worked as a dental technician before he followed a friend to the fire department's entrance exam. He hoped to move up the ranks, which is why he transferred three years ago to Engine 26, a busy company he believed could give him more experience. If he were going to lead others into life-or-death situations, he needed to have been there, done that himself.
Only he never planned to come so close.
On the good days, he celebrates the goals set and met since Aug. 23. Such as cooking his first dinner (and strutting around the kitchen afterward like a proud rooster, he confessed). Or dancing with his girlfriend at her sister's wedding, when three months before he'd been too weak and terrified to stand. One day he bent all the way south to his toes and, yes! tied his shoes. Repeatedly. Gleefully.
Yet the next morning, the gain was lost and the pain was back, like all the mornings when the trauma and tightness of his skin grab hold.
No one in his family saw that skin for the longest time. Morgan was scared to let them, unsure of how they would react.
Why don't you lift up my blanket and look at my shoulders? he asked his oldest sister after his 14th operation.
"Oh, Joe," replied a stunned Melva Morgan, a witness at last.
His girlfriend was equally scared--about how Morgan would feel about himself and whether she could handle that. They are each other's touchstone, says Gibson. By now, she has assisted with countless dressing changes. In October, she grieved with him after hearing that the latest grafts weren't taking. "Some days are good, some days are bad," she says. "You just look at yourself and say, 'Why?' "
He is focusing on the future.
It will not include the firehouse.
Skin as damaged as his cannot control sharp swings in body temperature, cannot recognize or tolerate the degrees raging inside a burning building. You would put yourself at extreme risk, surgeon Marion Jordan has warned him. Doctor's orders: Think about a different job in the department.
Sitting at home, Morgan is doing that. Cautiously approaching the possibilities. Turning them over in his mind: training, fire prevention, fire safety. He knows he has something to contribute, given--he allows a touch of irony--"the experience I've had." His living room displays two figurines: a firefighter cradling a fallen comrade, a firefighter guiding a young boy. There, in the fading light that preludes dusk, he is softly reflective.
"If I had it my way, I'd go right back. I'd do what I was doing before. But the reality is, I can't. . . . It's hard to accept. But in the back of my mind, it's like, I think I beat the odds."
CAPTION: Joe Morgan does a stretching exercise at Washington Hospital Center.
CAPTION: Joe Morgan, who was burned in a May blaze that killed two firefighters, grimaces in pain as physical therapist Dominique Leboucq applies wax to his back at Washington Hospital Center., left, and Morgan share a laugh before a session at the hospital.
CAPTION: Burn therapist Ron Lassitr
CAPTION: Morgan reads to D'Juna, 4. He says he wants his children to be proud of him for being strong.