Joseph Blanton was only 7 when he tearfully asked his mother if he was going to die while riding in the back of an ambulance.
About 60 percent of Joseph's body was burned that day, which was Dec. 5, 2009. He was in pain, and he was desperate for reassurance from his mother, Thurmissa Blanton. Joseph was scared, but not quite as scared as his mother and his father, Javier Blanton.
Thurmissa tried her best not to reveal her fear to her son. When Joseph asked if he was going to survive, his mother quickly offered a response she hoped would sound confident and, more importantly, be true.
"I told him, 'No, you're not going to die — that is what we have Jesus for,'" Thurmissa said.
Earlier that cold day, Javier Blanton was making a carport cover for the family's lawnmower trailer when Joseph tried to use a gas can to pour gasoline onto a small fire, Thurmissa said.
"Joseph was sitting around a fire, and the fire was about to go out," she said. "He was going to pour gas onto the fire to make it bigger, because the fire was really small. The fire got caught back up into the gas can, and the gas can exploded onto Joseph's entire body."
The fire burned Joseph "from head to toe," only ignoring part of his chest and an area below his stomach, Thurmissa said. The burns forced Joseph to receive medical treatment from Dec. 5 through March 12 at Arkansas Children's Hospital, she said.
"Joseph was in an induced coma because he had to have so many surgeries; I lost count of the number of surgeries he had, but I know it was more than 10 surgeries," Thurmissa said. "They had to use cadaver skin because there were so few places they could get skin from Joseph to use. They could get skin from his stomach area and the top of his head, but that was about it.
"Joseph had skin grafts all over his body," she added. "They ended up having to do surgery several years later around his lip area. That was done at Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati."
For Joseph, Dec. 5, 2009, will be a day most likely not forgotten.
"It was scary at first," he said. "It definitely was a life-changing experience for me."
Joseph since has "bounced back" from the incident, showing growth and maturity that caught the eyes and ears of officials with the International Burn Camp in Washington, D.C., Thurmissa said. Joseph recently was invited to and attended the week-long camp, which helps burn survivors from the U.S. and Canada cope with their life-changing injuries via visits to the Smithsonian, Arlington Cemetery and Camp Wabanna.
"When we were in D.C., I could tell there was a change in Joseph," said Josh White, a Little Rock Fire Department engineer who served as Joseph's counselor at the camp. "Knowing Joseph for five years of him coming to our burn camp, Camp Sunshine in Little Rock, I have seen a change in him over the years.
"That is why the organizers of the D.C. camp selected Joseph to represent the state of Arkansas this year in D.C.," he added. "Before, Joseph was kind of shy and would stand back. Joseph has been more outgoing recently. You could tell he enjoyed the camp."
The camp provided Joseph and others the opportunity to visit the Washington Monument, the World War II Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the U.S. Naval Academy, among other sites.
"A couple people in our group was able to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," White said. "That was very heart-warming, and Joseph had the chance to talk with an off-duty guard there. It was very nice."
"I loved the International Burn Camp," said Joseph, who now is a ninth-grade student at the Greenwood Junior Center and plays football, rides mountain bikes, hunts deer and listens to music. "There were 50-some kids there, and most of the kids had been in burn situations like me. I loved all of the people at the camp.
"Everybody was really nice, and I made friends," he added. "And I loved everyone's sense of humor there — especially the Canadian students' sense of humor. They were great."
The International Burn Camp was started in 1995 and since has hosted more than 1,000 teenagers, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, which assists burn survivors, helps those affected by natural disasters and provides scholarships to the children of firefighters who died in the line of duty. The Internal Association of Fire Fighters Charitable Foundation has awarded more than $2.7 million to burn research since 1982.
White said he views his work with Camp Sunshine and his participation in the recent camp in D.C. as a way to show support for families who are experiencing "difficult" times.
"It's serious because your son or your daughter got hurt, and you're not going to be in a hospital only for a day or two; it's usually always for two or three weeks," he said. "It's a tragedy that happens to your family, but it also allows us a chance to give back to these families — to try and help them out. We try to tell them, 'Everything is going to be OK. You have people looking out for you.'"
Thurmissa said she was thankful for White's support.
"Mainly, just seeing new faces at camp and being around kids like him was good for Joseph," she said. "Some kids feel alone sometimes, and when you go from not being burned to being burned, it can be tough.
"Joseph is still a kid," Thurmissa added. "He has feelings of a kid. For him to be around other kids at camp, it gave him a boost, and they are keeping in touch, which is really good."
Joseph agreed that the camp helped increase his self-esteem.
"The camp just taught us to act regularly," he said. "The camp encourages you to be who you are — to just be yourself — and it shows that it's OK to be different."