Harwich 11-year-old Shares Lesson About Bonfire Safety

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Beaches

Sawyer Nicholson and his mother, Diane. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

SOUTH HARWICH If he had one wish, 11-year-old Sawyer Nicholson of East Harwich wouldn’t go back in time and erase the accident that left him with severe burns on his feet. His real wish is that you listen to his story and avoid the pain he had to endure.

Sawyer was 10 last September when he and his family gathered at the end of Red River Beach to celebrate his grandfather’s 85th birthday. It was a grand time, ending with family members sitting around a bonfire. A public safety dispatcher for the town, Sawyer’s mother, Diane Nicholson, is probably more safety-conscious than most people. They obtained the required permit and had plenty of adults around to supervise. Instead of building the fire in a hole in the sand, they used a metal fire pit, which was later brought to the water’s edge and extinguished completely.

“The thought was, that was a safe way to do it,” Diane said. Often, emergency rooms see burns in the summer from people who’ve walked over a bonfire that was simply buried with sand and allowed to smolder unseen for hours. The only way to extinguish a bonfire built in the sand is with plenty of water, and it still leaves charred debris behind.

Though the fire had been removed, Sawyer ran across the sand where the fire pit had been located, and instantly knew something was wrong.

“I felt lots of pain,” he said. He jumped to his other foot instinctively, and burned that one as well. When his mother heard his cries, she looked over and found him face-down in the sand.

“I thought he just tripped on something,” she said. Using the light on her cell phone, she gave Sawyer a quick check. “His feet were very badly burned.” They called 911, and the Harwich ambulance arrived quickly. On board was paramedic Justin White, a family friend.

“He was awesome,” Sawyer said. Though the pain was incredibly intense, White told them that it was a good sign that the burns weren’t deep enough to destroy nerve endings. Did that make him feel better at the time?

“Not at all,” Sawyer said. The pain was so intense that he barely noticed the helicopter ride to Boston, where he was shuttled immediately to the Shriners Hospitals for Children next to Mass. General. Diane was unaware that there was a hospital in Boston that specialized in children’s burns, and was impressed when she learned about the team that would work on her son.

“This doc wrote the books on pediatric burn care,” she said.

One challenge was explaining to the medics, and later the doctors, that Sawyer hadn’t been burned directly by fire. He ran over a patch of super-heated sand, which burned the soles of his feet. It was the first such case any of them had seen.

Sawyer remained at Shriners for two weeks, enduring painful debridement and frequent dressing changes, and then physical and occupational therapy, and then had to regularly return for more dressing

“I stayed in my bed most of the time,” he said. “When I first got there, it was like, I don’t know this place.” The nurses did their best to make Sawyer comfortable, with help from his “purple person,” Brooke Allen. One of several “child life specialists” at Shriners – known for wearing purple scrubs – Allen helped Sawyer deal with the stress of the situation.

“She brought me an iPad and let me watch cat videos,” taking his mind off the painful bandage changes, Sawyer said. Being away from home for so long, Sawyer also found himself missing his dog, Denver. While Denver couldn’t easily visit, Allen arranged for Sawyer to visit with one of the hospital’s therapy dogs, which boosted his spirits considerably.

There was more stress: the timing of his hospitalization meant that Sawyer was missing his return to school, chiefly his first six weeks at Monomoy Regional Middle School. Transitioning from a small elementary school to the big middle school was, in itself, a stressful prospect. Now, he had to worry about other kids asking endless questions about his injury.

At Sawyer’s request, Allen worked with the Monomoy Schools, Chatham Fire Lt. Justin Tavano, Harwich Fire Capt. Leighanne Deering, and the Boston Firefighters’ Burn Foundation to hold a school-wide assembly where students could ask about what happened. His peers were very supportive, Diane said.

“All the kids were sending get well cards,” she said with a smile.

With help from tutors provided by the Monomoy schools, Sawyer was able to catch up with his classes and has regained full use of his feet. Though he had to sit out the fall golf season – he takes part in the junior PGA program at Cranberry Valley – he’s ready to get back on the links after the summer. He even took part in a “Spartan Race” at Fenway Park last November, as part of Shriners Hospitals for Children’s “Team No Limits.”

As he has been through his treatment and rehabilitation, Sawyer has been in charge. He agreed to share his story with the news media, conducting three interviews last Thursday, wowing reporters with his maturity and confidence. His goal, he said, is to warn people about the dangers of beach bonfires to help them avoid being burned.

Beach bonfires require a permit issued by the parks department or the fire department, and are not allowed on all beaches. They should be kept small in size and should be well supervised, particularly when youngsters are around. When it’s time to extinguish the fire, it should be put out with water.

“Don’t bury it. The fire will heat up the sand,” Diane said. If using a fire pit, mark a clear perimeter around the fire zone to warn people that a hot area remains even when the pit is removed. Diane said she is investigating whether it would be possible to have a safety brochure included with every bonfire permit.