Five years ago today, Angie Roach was 31 and thinking about death.
The Hall County firefighter had just fallen through a floor in a burning house. What should have been just a routine knockdown on a house fire — in the business, they call them “bread and butter fires” — quickly became a catastrophic event.
Some 45 percent of her body was severely burned. It was the worst on-the-job injury any Hall County firefighter had experienced.
When it happened, Roach wasn’t afraid of death, she said. But there were other thoughts that were upsetting.
“I wasn’t worried or scared about dying,” she said. “I was more upset and mad that I wasn’t going to get to see my children graduate and grow up and become adults and get married.”
But five years later, Roach is far from thinking about not living. In fact, she’ll mark the morning on the anniversary of her devastating injury by running a 5K race with her children.
This fall, the 36-year-old will start college, a first step toward her new career as a nurse. And in the in-between time, she’s a mom to her 9-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, and her 5-year-old son, Brayden — a role that makes her a little league coach, a Girl Scout leader and — on Friday at least — a chauffeur to the water park.
“I do whatever they need,” she said.
Five years ago, she wasn’t sure she’d be capable of so much.
‘It didn’t feel so hot’
The injury put Roach in the hospital for over a month, nearly two weeks in intensive care. After leaving the hospital, she endured “two or three” more surgeries and a large surface area of her body had to heal “from the skin all the way down.”
“Physically, it took me about three years to physically recover, and then to get mentally through all that, it’s taken almost the whole five years to get to a good point where you feel confident and you accept everything the way it is,” she said.
“Eventually, I just realized there was a bigger plan for what I was doing,” she said.
Roach remembers most of what happened until she got to the hospital Aug. 4, 2007.
She put her knee down on a floor, unaware that the bottom of it had been burned out. The fall seemed slow.
“I remember trying to grab and (her lieutenant) came and then the flames shot up,” Roach said. “As I fell, I just remember covering my face and just thinking ‘this is not that bad’ but all you saw was fire.”
When she landed, Roach remembers checking for broken bones. Finding none, she tried to get up.
But something had Roach pinned to the wall; she couldn’t get out on her own.
The fire was gone. A lieutenant had knocked it down after Roach’s fall.
“It didn’t feel so hot,” she recalled.
As her colleagues looked for her in the basement, they had a hard time finding her. The basement had been divided into several rooms. She yelled for them.
“They could hear me hollering, but they couldn’t find me,” Roach recalled.
So Roach gave them another way to search. Firefighters’ oxygen tanks are equipped with a device that makes a distress call when the firefighter either activates it manually or stops moving for more than 30 seconds, beeping until another is able to come to their aid.
Because she couldn’t reach the device with her one free hand, Roach lay still.
“That’s when I started feeling the heat, because I had to lay on those hot coals,” Roach said. “That’s probably when I got a lot of my burns, because I had to lay so still and couldn’t move. Other times, I was pushing up, trying to get whatever I could off the ground.”
The firefighters found her by sound. Between the time of her fall and the time they pulled her out of the burning building, seven minutes and 50 seconds passed, according to the fire department report.
‘It ... defined who I was’
Being a firefighter was a profession she’d stumbled upon on “accident” in EMT school. It turned out to be a happy accident.
“It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” She said. “It really kind of defined who I was for a long time.”
Before her accident, Roach stuck with the job for eight years. It fulfilled a need she had to help people.
“I made a difference every day I came to work,” she said.
She helped start the dive team. She joined the hazardous materials team. She became the first woman in the county assigned to drive a fire engine. She prepared herself for a test that would allow her to become a lieutenant.
On Aug. 4, 2007, she lost all of it.
Months into her recovery, a doctor told Roach she’d never work as a firefighter again. The burns had left only a thin layer of skin protecting her intestines. She couldn’t handle heat the way she had before. Some of her abdominal muscles had been removed, limiting her strength.
“I wanted to come back. In the hospital, I told everybody and that was my goal,” Roach said. “It just kind of devastated when (the doctor) told me that I could never do that again.”
She admits to feeling sorry for herself. But she started working as a camp counselor at a Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation camp for children with burn injuries. One day, something about watching them changed her.
“They don’t know any different. Some of them were burned when they were little,” she said. “I went 30-something years being a normal adult, not being a burn survivor. And seeing how they handled themselves compared to how I was handling myself just kind of made me realize I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself.”
She also realized that she could help people again — a void she had felt ever since she knew she could no longer be a firefighter.
“That was the hardest struggle I had, because I had this overwhelming need that I needed to help take care of people,” Roach said.
Once she moved on, she found nursing school might help her fill the void. After that, it took her another three years to get the confidence and willpower to sign up for classes.
“Mentally, I had to get myself to the right place ... and be a good example for my daughter and my son,” she said.
And as the healing continued, she embraced the extra time she had with her children. Before the accident, she and her husband John, himself a firefighter in Alpharetta, had more than four jobs between them.
“We weren’t focusing on our family; we were focusing on what a young couple should be doing — earning money, trying to make it on a firefighter’s salary, because it’s tough,” she said.
Family first, no regrets
Losing Roach’s salary has meant the couple’s budget has had to shrink. But there are no regrets about the extra time spent with their children. Roach gets to attend meetings with teachers, she co-leads her daughter’s Girl Scout group and she coaches their sports teams.
“Now, they are our first priority,” she said.
Roach said she still wakes up at night, thinking about what she could have done better to prevent the
injury, even though she knows there were a lot of things she and her colleagues did right.
And she doesn’t want anyone else to go through it.
Now she travels around the country, talking to firefighters about the accident and what might have prevented it. In Hall, the incident prompted fire officials to acquire the funds for more thermal imaging cameras and to use them early on in every fire call.
The cameras allow firefighters to see “hot spots” through walls and floors. Having one with her in 2007 might have prevented Roach from stepping through the burned-out floor.
A letter Roach wrote to her former co-workers Friday urged them to “train like your life depends on it, because it does.”
“I hate what happened to me, and if I can prevent it from happening to another firefighter, I feel like I’ve really made a difference,” she said. It’s another way for me to heal, too.”
“It makes me feel like I just didn’t roll over and die and that I’m not trying to sit there and just dwell in my own self pity.”