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Publication Date: Friday, September 12, 2003

Burn survivors push prevention Burn survivors push prevention (September 12, 2003)

Family burned in Moffett fire moves forward, seeking to keep others safe from fire

By Diana Reynolds Roome

It was just about three years ago that the Knopf family's lives were profoundly changed by a spark.

It didn't come from the barbecue at a friend's Labor Day party (although outdoor pits are a common cause of burn injuries). When Tess Knopf went off to work her night shift as a dialysis nurse, Jim took Lea (then 13) and Michael (then 7) home. Their house was full of packed boxes, because after almost 10 years living in Mountain View they were preparing to move. Jim Knopf, a Marines sergeant, had just left the service and taken a new job as a computer systems technician at the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

Other than that, it was an ordinary evening. When Tess called in from work to make sure everything was okay, Jim was doing a load of laundry, Lea catching up on homework for the next day and Michael was in the tub.

After they went to bed, Lea dreamed that they were camping, roasting marshmallows and burning them. She awoke to find her room full of dense black smoke. When she tried opening her door, she had to slam it shut because the air drew smoke and heat further into the room. She threw open her window, leaned out of the window screaming, "Fire!" and it didn't take long for her neighbors to come running.

The Knopfs lived in a four-section apartment, and among their neighbors there happened to be a Navy submarine captain, a marine and a paramedic. Someone called 911, and another told Lea to jump, standing strategically below to break her fall. It took three attempts to get Michael out because the staircase was impassable.

An uneasy feeling had prompted Tess to drive home during her half-hour break. She arrived to find her children on the grass being resuscitated. By that time the fire was out and the firefighters had arrived, but nobody had looked for her husband. Because she had taken his car, everyone assumed he wasn't home. The children had already been taken to hospital by ambulance when they found Jim unconscious upstairs. Trying to reach the children, he had suffered from severe smoke inhalation but minor burns.

Lea had suffered burns over 20 to 30 percent of her body; 60 percent of Michael's body was covered with third-degree burns, and he remained in hospital for almost three months, until a few days before Christmas.

"There was nothing that wasn't peeled or burned," says Jim. "He really looked like a patchwork kid."

Michael recently underwent his thirteenth operation --his one to take skin from a donor site on his thigh to repair his injured hand. "People stare when I ride my bike in the park," says Michael, who currently wears a brace and pressure garment on his arm. He also suffered muscle damage when his leg was stuck between the bunk bed and window before he was rescued.

"I'm used to the staring and questions," says Lea, who lost a finger and much of the movement in her right hand after a tendon got infected. Exposed parts of her chest and neck were burned and a zipper on her sweatshirt melted in the heat, though her plastic watch -- which she still wears -- protected her wrist. When she volunteered as a camp counselor at Walden West this summer, some of the children were curious, and a few made hurtful remarks. "I just smiled, and was upfront with my group," said Lea. "I tell them you've got to be so careful. Don't leave electrical appliances on unattended."

It was a spark from the dryer that caused the fire at the Knopf house.

Despite the trauma of that night, Lea and Michael have come through with poise, self possession and "their spirits intact," says Jim. Lea caught up at school and earned a scholarship to St. Francis. She returned to playing volleyball -- something many people thought would be impossible -- and runs cross country, too. Michael finished his school year at St. Joseph's, despite spending months after the accident semi-conscious and suffering from amnesia.

Their courage and resilience was bolstered by family members who stayed with them, all day every day, throughout their time in hospital, as well as support from their communities at home, at school and their parents' workplaces.

An event uniquely available to California children also helped. This past June, for the third time, Lea and Michael spent a week at Wonder Valley Ranch, a rugged resort in a remote valley in the Sierra foothills where the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF) holds its annual Champ Camp for burn-injured children.

A refuge for burn survivors

It's a place where kids can forget the relentless regimen of therapies, operations, and even their parents' natural overprotectiveness. Away from prying eyes and questions, they swim, ride, go kart, mud-wrestle, climb ropes, go fishing, paint, dye T-shirts and share experiences (if they wish) in a safe place among others who understand what they've gone through.

Founded by the mother of a child who died in a backyard barbecue accident in 1971, the nonprofit AARBF is dedicated to prevention, education and survivor assistance. Champ Camp is the largest free residential camp for burn-injured children in the world (this year 170 attended), and has grown largely through the dedication of its volunteers -- nurses, doctors, therapists, firefighters, and adults who have suffered burns themselves. Because the staff has the training, skill and experience to take care of children who are physically and emotionally vulnerable, some are able to go straight to the camp from a burn unit.

"Kids show up in turtlenecks, long pants and hats and by the end of the week, they're at a public water slide wearing bathing suits," says Scott Robbins, a firefighter at Mountain View's Fire Station 1, who -- along with two of his colleagues -- was a volunteer counselor at this year's Champ Camp. "It's such a nurturing, caring, trusting safe and healthy environment ... that a child who has chemical burns to his face and is completely blind can get up on stage, sing and play the piano. [We all] come away with a new perspective on life and on human possibility." (Firefighters Robbins', Brian Collins' and Jenna Graham's participation in the camp was the subject of a July 18 Voice story about the camp.)

Though Champ Camp is a tonic for all who attend, the best thing that could happen is that it would no longer be needed, says Robbins, adding, "You never get used to going on calls to children -- those are the ones that affect us most."

What makes it worse is that many injuries could have been prevented. "Children and the elderly are so dependent on the decisions their caretakers make for them. It's so important for people to take time to research how they can better protect their families," Robbins added.

Frequently, firefighters answering calls find no batteries (or old ones) in smoke detectors, or fire extinguishers that need recharging. And many families have not talked to their children about the best ways to get out in case of fire, where to meet, and to call 911 after getting out of the building. "They're such simple fixes," says Robbins.

Lea Knopf hopes to become a doctor, and is already dedicated to spreading the word about burn prevention. A few weeks ago, she was on the Mountain View fire truck that drove from Moffatt Field to San Francisco in the annual AARBF Burn Relay, collecting funds raised by fire stations all along the way. She presented the resulting check for $1,500 to the Burn Foundation.

Here are some of AARBF's safety tips

Plan for safety

-- Plan and practice a home escape route with two exits.

-- Install smoke detectors near bedroom doors and at the top of stairways. Test batteries monthly.

-- Never use gasoline as a solvent or cleaning fluid. Keep gasoline tightly sealed in approved safety containers away from any ignition source.

-- Do not store flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil-based paints, cleaning products, pesticides, hairspray, glues and turpentine near your hot water heater.

-- Never add lighter fluid or other flammable liquids to hot coals in a barbecue.

-- Give space heaters room - 3 feet on all sides.

-- Do not go to sleep with candles burning or appliances running.

Prevent scalds

-- Turn the hot water heater down to 120 degrees (low setting)

-- Never leave a small child unattended in bath or shower

-- Turn pot handles towards rear of stove.

-- Wear short or close-fitting sleeves.

-- Keep young children out of the kitchen while cooking.

Or more information on Champ Camp, or how to volunteer or sponsor a burn-injured child, call: 1-800-755-BURN or go to

To schedule a presentation on fire safety, or for a fire station tour, call Lynn Brown, coordinator for the city's Office of Emergency Services, at 903-6825.


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