(KMSP) - In Minnesota, riding snowmobiles and ATVs is a way of life. Most riders know the safety rules, like wearing a helmet or obeying trail signs, but there’s one potential danger you don’t hear a lot about.
It can happen in a split second – and knowing what to do could mean the difference between life and death.
14-year-old Gabe Schwarzlander’s world was turned upside down this summer when he and his friends filled up two gas cans, jumped into an ATV and headed out on the trails near Bemidji, Minn.
“We were hitting the bumps and some gas was splashing up in the back. Then, we hit a really big bump and a bunch of gas splashed onto my right shoulder,” Gabe told Fox 9. “My friend Justin, who was burned on the forearm, he was like, ‘Oh I knew this was going to ha..., ‘and right when he said ‘happen’ there was just a huge flame came rushing in through the back of the Ranger.”
The boys didn't cap the gas cans – a critical mistake. The fuel splashed, a fire sparked and Gabe went up in flames.
"Curtis, the one driving, said ‘Hey man we got to rip your, Gabe you got to get this fire out you got to get your shirt off,’ and he finally went in there and just ripped the shirt off of me and the flames finally went out and I rolled into the ditch and I thought I was dead, you know, I thought it was over with," Gabe said.
Gabe couldn't move. His friends called 911, and his mom.
"Gabe wanted to talk to me and he was just screaming 'Mom,'” Melissa Schwarzlander said.
By the time a paramedic arrived, Gabe's shock wore off and the pain set in.
“Just times the most pain that you've had from the heat and just times [that] by like 100,000,” Gabe said.
Nearly 10 hours later, Melissa saw Gabe for the first time, in the burn unit at Hennepin County Medical Center.
“They tried preparing me, but nothing prepares you,” Melissa said. “He was unrecognizable. His head was larger than a basketball. His face was completely burned. He was intubated. He had no hair, the only thing you could see were his eyebrows on his face…I just fell to the floor and just started screaming."
Gabe suffered third degree burns on nearly 40 percent of his body. Seeing the images from the ICU, it's hard to believe this is the same kid, just a few weeks later.
"The most important thing is his youth. He recovered very quickly,” Gabe’s doctor told Fox 9.
Melissa now hopes that other people can learn from Gabe’s story.
“I don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else,” Melissa said. “If it saves someone’s life, if it brings education to somebody, if it prevents something from happening to someone, you know.”
His surgeries now behind him, Gabe tries to shift his focus from the unthinkable – to the things a 14-year-old should be thinking about and tries to imagine what his new normal will look like.
“What we've found is the psychological recovery, at least in my experience, is the most difficult and the longest,” Gabe’s doctor said.
Gabe started school this month and is back on the football team. He's on the sidelines this year, and plans to play next season.
Melissa hopes Gabe’s story will remind everyone of the dangers of transporting flammable liquids, and if there is a fire being fueled in that way – don't run around or give it air. Get down on the ground and smother it.
“I don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else,” Melissa said. “If [Gabe’s story] saves someone’s life, if it brings education to somebody, if it prevents something from happening to someone, you know.”