8-year-old girl suffers severe burns after bonfire explosion

Image 1 of 5

Eight-year-old Arionna “Onna” Matteson is a spunky third-grader who loves the outdoors, dancing and playing with her little sister and older brothers.

Taking part in one of her favorite past-times with siblings and a couple friends around a bonfire is exactly what Onna was doing on the night of September 29th in her father’s backyard when her life forever changed.

“We've talked to them many times about the dangers of it and never have had them even attempt to try to put any accelerant or anything on a fire before. I think it had a lot to do with his friends being over,” said Onna’s mother, Jennifer Phillips, who was on her way home after a week at the Mayo Clinic, addressing personal health issues when she got the call.

Under peer pressure, the mother says, Onna’s ten-year-old brother Drake poured gasoline onto the fire, after his father, Tim Matteson, stepped away for mere minutes.

“He'd just went into the house to stir supper and put stuff in the oven,” Jennifer said.

That’s when the bonfire exploded and left Onna with third-degree burns on 75 percent of her body, including her face and neck. Drake now also suffers minor burns to the left side of his face and neck.

“He did ask me why it was Onna and not him. That was hard,” the mom shared of what she calls a tragic accident.

Another child, one of Onna's friends, also sustained burns to 12 percent of her body.

“On the way here [Onna] was asking about all the other kids, she was more concerned about them than herself,” she said.

Since Onna was life-flighted to HCMC’s burn unit she’s undergone 10 surgeries. 

“She’s very lucky she survived,” said the director of the unit, Dr. Ryan Fey.

Dr. Fey sees “dozens and dozens” of burn injuries every year, mostly in men, but says little Onna was much closer to the fire than any adult would’ve been.

“The scars are permanent, so she'll have scars that will cause her trouble for the rest of her life,” Fey said.

The lasting effects of the accident are why both Dr. Fey and Jennifer warn us all to keep gas and flammable liquids away from every fire.

From here, fortunate as Onna may be to be alive, she will face some of her toughest challenges over the next three years.

“Going back to school and what other people think, and that kind of thing. She's our little princess so she always wants to dress up; she's big into make-up lately, so I think that's going to be the hardest part for her,” she said.

Onna was named “First Princess” at the 2016 Little Miss Menahga pageant. She just passed on the crown to her successor in July.

“Rehabilitative work, reconstructive surgeries...this will be true largely until she’s done growing,” said Dr. Fey. While children tend to heal relatively well from severe burns he expects Onna will endure the physical pain of the accident well into her adult life

“There are a lot of things that we’re going to be monitoring and dealing with for years to come. It’ll be a different life than maybe she was expecting or what her parents were expecting,” Dr. Fey shared candidly, although, he expects Onna to make what specialists consider a full recovery.

Meanwhile, the accident has compelled the people of the small northern Minnesota town of Menahga to pull together. A benefit for Onna will take place Nov. 25 from 4-11 p.m. at the Menahga VFW to help the family with medical expenses.

To learn more about fundraising efforts friends of the family have launched click here and here.