Miami-Dade County

Barbecue burn victim shares his story as a cautionary tale

Burn victim John Herrera gets a hug from his surgeon Carlos Medina after discussing an accident while he was igniting his home barbecue.
Burn victim John Herrera gets a hug from his surgeon Carlos Medina after discussing an accident while he was igniting his home barbecue. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

“I can tell you that a little less than two seconds changed my life.”

On Feb. 23, 2014, John Herrera walked to the backyard of his home in Coral Gables to check what was wrong with the gas grill his wife could not get started. Herrera did not know his wife had left both the gas valve open and all five burners on.

With the lid of the grill closed, the cavity became filled with gas. When Herrera opened the top and lit the burner, the trapped gas exploded.

Herrera was hit by the explosion and covered in what he describes as a 16-foot wall of fire.

“It felt like one million hot needles at one time all over your entire body,” Herrera said.

Herrera, 49, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, including his face, legs, hands and toes.

“I had no skin on both of my legs, from above my knees all the way down,” Herrera said.

Herrera was treated at the Burn Center at Kendall Regional Medical Center. Herrera shared his story Tuesday at the hospital to offer barbecue safety tips, especially as people prepare for Fourth of July festivities this weekend.

“John did everything the right way. This was just an accident,” said Dr. Carlos Medina, Herrera’s plastic surgeon. “In eight out of 10 cases, there is something that could be prevented. A person is intoxicated with alcohol or a kid is running around the barbecue and gets burned.”

Medina says he expects this will be a busy weekend at the hospital, 11750 SW 40th St. He suggests that revelers take precautions to avoid burns.

“Read the instructions of the barbecue,” Medina said. “If there are kids running around, make sure you are very aware where they are running around and that they don’t come near by and touch the grill.”

Herrera’s recovery is ongoing.

“Out of the explosion, my right foot became numb,” Herrera said. “I’m not a doctor, but I guess there’s some nerve damage that goes to that part, and that creates a certain level of instability for me.”

Almost 17 months after the accident, Herrera still uses a cane on occasion because of the nerve damage caused by his burns. Herrera couldn’t return to his law practice for about 10 months and can’t work at the level he once did. He also has scars where synthetic skin was applied to heal his skin.

“I’m not going to be a leg model, but that’s all right,” Herrera said.

Herrera says he tells his story to warn others about the dangers of grilling and to pay attention to the grill’s instructions.

“As far as the safety aspect goes, taking every step that you should, opening the lid, making sure [the grill] airs out,” Herrera said. “Paying attention to what you’re supposed to do can save your life, or at least save you from a whole lot of pain.”

Herrera has started barbecuing again, although with much more caution. He says he knows he is lucky to be alive.

“My motto is, when you’re supposed to be dead and you’re not, every day is a good day,” he said.

Safety tips for the Fourth of July

1. Only use propane and charcoal barbecue grills outdoors.

2. Never leave the grill unattended, and turn off all burners and gas valves when the grill is no longer in use.

3. Keep children and pets at least three feet away from the grill area at all times.

4. Make sure the gas grill lid is open before lighting it. This allows any gas in the lid to escape to avoid an explosion.

5. Alcohol and grilling don’t mix. Do not drink while using the grill.

6. Leave fireworks to the professionals. They are trained to use them. You are not.

7. If you do decide to set off your own fireworks, shoot them in open areas away from trees, buildings and spectators.

8. Don’t let your kids pick up leftover fireworks. They could still be active.

Sources: The Burn Center at Kendall Regional Medical Center; Capt. Ignatius Carroll, Miami Fire and Rescue Department

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