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.
"He looked at me and said, 'That's not my mommy,'" Cindy recalls. "He said, 'It sounds like my mommy, but it doesn't look like her.'"
Harvey had suffered second-degree burns on his hands, face, back and legs, but they were not as severe as Zach's or hers. In court records, he said he was trying to relight the pilot--not trying to taunt Cindy. He also had an olfactory condition that hindered his sense of smell. But the strain ended their marriage, which had been troubled before the fire.
After her release from the hospital, Cindy moved in with her parents, who devoted themselves to her recovery. She spent two years in outpatient care and psychological counseling. Her father drove her to the hospital every day. Plastic surgery and physical therapy became a part of her life. But the rudeness of strangers, the cruelty, was something she would never get used to.
Once she and Zach walked into a Burger King wearing pressure masks over their faces. The clerk said, "Lady. Halloween's over. You and the kid can take off your costumes."
Another time, she walked into an elevator and a woman threw up her hands, dropped her purse and said, "Please don't rob me!" Cindy broke down. "I'm not going to rob you," she said. "I was just burned badly in a house fire. I have to wear this over my face."
People she considered friends faded away. Men who used to smile at her turned away. And at the playground, children called Zach "Kentucky Fried Chicken" and "Freddy Krueger" and "French Fry." Everywhere they went, people stared.
"It made life as a recluse look good," Cindy says. "I was a stranger in a strange world. I felt like an alien. That I did not belong. Had I not had a child, no one would have ever seen or heard from me again."
But she did have a child. And Zachary made all the difference. Despite his injuries, he was still a little boy. He knew nothing of vanity, pity or shame. He would say, "Yeah. I was burned," then run outside and play. In him, Cindy found strength.
"I could have had a pity party and no one would have blamed me," she says. "But it wasn't fair for me to be a recluse. I owed it to him. I had to show him what a new life could be. I had to teach him there was nothing wrong with us. So what does a mother do? She tries to protect other children from being burned. She tries to make happy lives for those who have been burned. She treats them like normal kids."
Cindy has a snapshot she shows to visitors. It's a portrait of a 22-year-old Chinese woman named Maolin, whose mother kicked a pan of boiling oil over on her when she was an infant. Maolin lost both hands and was left for dead. She has been confined to a hospital her entire life. Cindy visited Maolin in Beijing. She never met a person more in love with life.
"She was the one who taught me I don't have a thing in this world to worry about," Cindy says. "She was so happy. So absolutely happy. When I saw her, I realized I no longer have a single day to take for granted."
In 1993, Cindy and her son formed the Zach Foundation, a nonprofit group helping burned children and their families. From a basement office in her Lakewood home, Cindy and foundation volunteers organize financial aid, college scholarships, a children's camp and education and prevention programs. Cindy has also worked to establish new statewide fire codes and raise awareness for burn accidents, which injure hundreds of Coloradans each year.
"Being burned alive is the embodiment of people's greatest nightmare," Cindy says. "Ninety-five percent of adult burn survivors never re-enter society to live a normal life. That's the tragedy."
To spread that message, Cindy has appeared on numerous talk shows. She's been a guest speaker at the World Burn Congress. And she was a United States delegate for a 1992 Asian tour helping parents with burned children.
"I feel in my heart we have been given so much that it's imperative to give something back," she says. "Before the fire, I was part of the living dead. I was moving through life only worrying about helping me. I really almost had to die to learn how to live."
And live she does. Although there are some activities she can no longer do, Cindy swims, sunbathes and water-skis. She does it all with dignity, grace and a sense of humor.
When Cindy was swimming in Hawaii a few years ago, a woman saw her in her bathing suit and rudely said, "Oh, my God. Look at your legs! What happened to you?" Cindy replied, "I was bitten by a shark. Right where your kids are swimming."
As Cindy was lying beside a pool in Denver, another startled woman asked the same question, and Cindy joked, "I fell asleep in the sun."
"I'm a plastic surgeon's dream girl," she chuckles. "I tell people I'm well-done, baked to perfection and fried right. I say, 'I've tried shake and bake, and I don't recommend it.' It's like Carol Burnett says: 'Comedy is tragedy plus time.'"
And for every jerk out there, Cindy has found someone who sees the beautiful person she is. "This has really kept superficial people away, because they can't handle it," she says. "I've made some of the most precious friends anyone can ever hope to have. People I can really count on. I truly feel blessed."
She has also watched Zach blossom into a special young man. Despite the relentless teasing, he has managed to rise above the ignorance of his classmates and help other burned kids. He has hinted about taking over the Zach Foundation some day. This month he turned sixteen. Like many other teens, he spends his days listening to hard rock, riding dirt bikes, skateboarding and hanging around with his friends.
"The cruelty he has put up with is just amazing," she says. "The lessons he has learned at the tender age of sixteen surpass the lessons most people learn in a lifetime. He's really a young man of steel and velvet."
Although there are days when it hurts to walk and she just feels like staying in bed, Cindy, who is 39, moves full speed ahead. She speaks at schools, rounds up Christmas toys for burned children, organizes fundraising dinners, volunteers with civic groups and works toward a degree in English literature. She has no intention of slowing down.
"It takes a while for me to get warmed up in the morning," she says. "I snap, crackle and pop better than Rice Krispies. But I don't focus on the pain. I don't mind if my fingers are crunchy and my face looks like a topo map. I'll take my crunchy body and move along. I have found my purpose in life. I think I'm the lucky one. To me, each day is a gift. There's just too much to do. I don't want to die with my music inside me. I want to die with my high heels on. In action."
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Three years ago, before leukemia completely drained her father's energy and stole his voice, Cindy sat beside him in the hospital.
"I've been so upset with you," he said. "I could never understand why you just go, go, go--why you push yourself to exhaustion. You're in pain. You're not even supposed to be doing what you do."
Then they sat in silence and watched the sun rise over the city and the dawn of another beautiful day.
After a time, Cindy's father spoke.
"Now I get it," he said. "Now I understand.