By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Somewhere over Denver, moments after the fire, Cindy Andrews's heart stopped for two minutes and thirty-two seconds. As she faded from consciousness, she could hear the whump, whump of a rescue helicopter and the frantic shouts of paramedics, and she said to herself, "I'm not ready to die. I have to raise my son." She felt herself floating above her burned and crumpled body, and she prayed: "Please don't take me. I haven't been happy. If you save me, I'll give my life to you. If you let me live, I'll let you guide me wherever I'm needed."
Then the blackness came.
Cindy was the kind of woman who had everything going for her, and knew it.
She was born and raised in Denver, the younger of two children. Her father ran a butcher shop and her mother stayed at home with the kids. From the beginning, the blond and blue-eyed beauty charmed everyone she met. "To be blunt, I had the world by the tail," she says.
In high school she lettered in tennis, played the lead in a class production of Godspell and joined the Future Business Leaders of America, where she won an award for typing. In her senior year she was voted "Most Likely to Marry a Millionaire."
"I was a classic overachiever," she says. "I worked so hard I skipped eleventh grade. I had lofty goals. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to be an international corporate lawyer."
Instead she went to work for a real estate developer in San Francisco. By the time she turned twenty, she cleared $60,000 a year, drove a bright-red Alfa Romeo, had a clothing allowance at Saks Fifth Avenue and lived in an exclusive East Bay apartment complex.
"To me," she says, "that was success."
Then her grandfather died. Cindy remembers walking along bustling sidewalks with tears streaming down her face. No one asked what was wrong. No one said anything.
"Right then, I just felt so terribly alone," she says. "I realized that all that money didn't matter. Once you get there, you say, 'Maybe success isn't just about making as much money as you can. Maybe the best things in life really are free.'"
So she returned to her family in Denver, took a job at a petroleum company, married a man who worked construction, and considered a career in modeling. On December 10, 1982, Cindy gave birth to Zach.
"That was the greatest miracle of my life," she says. "I would just hold that little baby and say, 'Look at what I made.' I'd stare at him for hours. He was precious. A real blessing. I wanted to have a dozen kids. I thought, 'This is all I'll ever want or need.'"
On April 11, 1986, her life took a tragic turn. It was 8:45 p.m. on a Friday, and Cindy, her husband, Harvey, and Zach had just returned to their home in Evergreen after having dinner at her parents' house. Their cat had given birth to kittens, and the family went down to the basement to check on them.
In the basement, Cindy smelled an odor of rotten eggs; she feared the outdoor propane tank had sprung a leak. So she turned off the pilot lights to the furnace and hot-water heater and told Zach to go upstairs. Her husband scoffed. He said not to be afraid and took a cigarette lighter from his pocket. Then he flicked it.
What happened next would haunt Cindy the rest of her life: "I saw an inch of flame from that brown Bic grow bigger and bigger. Then I felt the pressure growing and the heat intensifying, and in a flash, I was engulfed in a sea of flames."
There are no mirrors in the burn unit at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Cindy found one anyway, in a physical therapy room. When she saw her reflection for the first time after the accident, she screamed. "Oh, my God, I'm a monster!"
After the fire, doctors had worked through the night to save her life. They almost didn't succeed. The force from the 2,400-degree flash fire had lifted the house from its foundation and melted the metal fixtures in the basement. Cindy was burned over 90 percent of her body; 54 percent of the burns were third-degree. Yet she still managed to smother the flames on her son, walk upstairs and dial 911.
"I would have given anything to have been able to take his burns," she says.
She spent the next two and a half months in intensive care. Her lung collapsed, her finger was amputated, and the rest of her hands were permanently frozen in the curved shape of Zach's head, which she'd tried to shield from the flames. She wasn't expected to walk again. The only part of her body untouched by fire was a twelve-inch section on her shoulders. Within a ten-month period, she endured 23 operations.
But that anguish, she says, did not compare to the pain she felt for her three-year-old son, who was burned over 50 percent of his body, including his face. After the explosion, Zach thought his mother was dead. He saw her being carried away on a stretcher and feared he would never see her again. Once she was able, Cindy made a tape of her voice and had staffers at Children's Hospital play it for her son. Still, when he saw the injured woman in the hospital bed, Zach had trouble believing it was his mother.