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Fire is used for everything from food preparation to home heating to generating electricity, but it is also one of the most underestimated natural occurrences on earth. And in the case of curious children, fire can be a dangerous attraction.
On a cold February night, Terry Cook and his two younger brothers, Zackary and Connor, sneaked outside their Tennessee home to set some grass on fire.
“I’d been messing with lighters before the accident,” Terry, now a sixth-grader at Taylor County Middle School, said.
He said he remembers telling Zack to go back inside to find a lighter while he fetched a gas can from the porch.
“We were going to light the grass on fire because it was kind of dry,” Terry said.
Moments later, the gas can exploded.
“Right before it blew, I jumped and pushed Zack out of the way - that’s why he’s not burned - and then I jumped over the fire and pushed Conner out of the way,” Terry said.
While Zack was spared from injury, it was too late for Terry and Connor. Before Terry could push Connor away, he suffered burns to his face and upper body. Terry received second- and third-degree burns to 75 percent of his body.
Their mother placed the two boys in a bathtub with cold water to extinguish the flames.
“I totally forgot about stop, drop and roll,” Terry said.
Terry stayed 80 days in the intensive care unit. For 60 of those days, he was in an induced coma. It would be a year before he could come home from the hospital.
“It’s like a daze, part of you thinks it’s just a dream,” Tony Cook, Terry’s father, said. “It was definitely emotional.”
Six years after the night his life was changed forever in a matter of seconds, Terry has been able to overcome much of shyness around his classmates and openly shares his story in a speech he wrote for a recent 4-H competition.
His teacher, Lori Schultz, said when they began writing speeches in class, she pulled Terry aside and told him that he had a life experience to share and asked if he was ready to share it.
“And he said, ‘I don’t know,’” Schultz said. “So he was a little resistant at first, but I think he knew I wanted him to do it.”
When she first met Terry at the beginning of the school year, Schultz said he was very polite and well-mannered, but also quiet and a little withdrawn.
Schultz said in her class, students share their writing with their classmates.
“And the more he shared, the more confident he became and I think it was just that experience of
‘I can tell my story. It is OK. People here do accept me,’ and I’m not sure he’s had that in the past,” Schultz said.
Terry’s stepmother, Amanda, said the school system has been great to the boys.
“From what I understand, from what he was telling me, it was pretty bad,” Amanda said of the teasing Terry often endured at previous schools.
Amanda said she is proud of Terry for agreeing to share his story because he has had problems talking about it in the past.
“He absolutely refused to talk about it a year ago even,” Amanda said. “Lately, he seems more comfortable with himself. He’s changed so much, it’s amazing.”
Schultz said seeing the academic or personal growth in students like Terry is why she teaches.
“He has made me remember what teaching is for,” Schultz said. “When I have had bad days or bad experiences this year, I’ve looked back on him. We’ve made a difference in his life and that is so important.”
These days, Terry loves to play with remote control cars and freely admits his addiction to video games. Amanda said he also loves sports.
“He actually got onto the football team, but being out in the sun after school every day was starting to take its toll on him and we didn’t want to take a risk on him getting hurt during a game, so he ended up quitting football.”
But he recently joined the Taylor County High School bowling team and, according to Amanda, it is perfect for him.
Ben Hamilton, TCHS bowling coach, said he got to know Terry during bowling season this year.
“He seemed like a good kid,” Hamilton said. “If he didn’t get to bowl, he was OK with that and seemed to be a team player.”
But the fire’s physical and emotional toll is not over for Terry. He said he still struggles with guilt because of Zackary’s injuries, although his brother has forgiven him.
And as he gets older, Terry will have to undergo more surgeries to release some of the skin grafts under his arms and on his legs.
When asked if there is anything other children can learn from his experience, Terry said, “I hope they don’t try to do what I did.”
Amanda said everyone can learn a valuable lesson from her family’s experience.
She said she hopes they understand lighters are not toys.
“But adults, hopefully when they hear the story, they will pay more attention to their kids and what they’re getting into,” Amanda said. “Just watch them, spend more time with them.”