GIRL ON FIRE! - Long before the release of the hit song by Alicia Keys and the Hunger Games movie that further popularized the phrase, Staff Sgt. Erica Luke was the 'Girl on Fire' ... literally

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Staff Sgt. Erica Luke always wondered how well fire-retardant flight suits really work. Six years ago she found out the hard way ... engulfed in flames.

Stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., at the time, the 31-year-old aerospace and operational physiology technician had been temporarily assigned to a two-week, high-altitude airdrop mission to support the Navy explosive ordinance disposal team at Little Creek in Suffolk, Va.

"Our main job was to fill the jump team's oxygen consoles prior to them going up to 25,000 feet," Luke said. She added that the jumpers needed to pre-breathe the extra oxygen for 30 minutes before going to that altitude and bailing out of the plane into the thin air.

On the last day, March 26, 2007, on the final mission, Murphy's Law threw her a red hot curve ball.

It was Luke's turn to fill up the consoles for the 11 jumpers.

The console charging port was located on the outside of the Cessna, and Luke's team replenished them when the aircraft still sat on the ground. To fill the consoles, they used cylinder-shaped oxygen tanks, which were roughly as tall as Luke's 5-foot-2 frame. To reach the valves on these tanks, she had to use a small stepladder. She ascended the ladder, filled the console and started turning off the oxygen bottle. Suddenly, violent vibrations began rumbling through the system.

"I heard a quick hiss like the air hose coming off a just-filled car tire, and then this loud bang like someone had popped a huge balloon directly against my left ear," Luke said.

Instinctively, she turned and closed her eyes as a burst of flame propelled by 1,100 pounds of pressure enveloped her in a fiery cocoon.

She felt the forceful gust of air from the flash fire but did not feel any heat or pain. And even though her eyes were closed, she could see a greenish hue.

"As I twisted away from the explosion, I jumped off the ladder," she said.

Then she headed directly for the designated emergency area, as people scrambled away from the aircraft to the pre-briefed safety zone. But at this point, she still wasn't worried about any injuries she might have sustained.

"Initially, I was embarrassed," Luke said. "I thought I had done something wrong. And because of the initial shock, I had no idea of the severity of the accident."

Then she noticed that half her flight suit had been scorched and, for the first time, realized she had been injured.

A medic rushed over to assess Luke's condition. One look at her scorched frame and he knew she needed to be medevac'd out of the area and stat!

An ambulance arrived only moments after the fire. Luke said she started out calm and collected, but she could see the worried expressions on everyone who looked at her, which left her a little unsettled.

"Then the shock began wearing off," she said, raising her eyebrows and slowly exhaling.

As she started to feel the full effects of those painful burns, paramedics placed her in the ambulance. She looked up at one of them and asked, "Are any jumpers around?"

When the medic replied, no, she said, "Alright, then I'm going to cry like a baby now."

And she started bawling.

Paramedics stuck an IV in her and placed an oxygen mask over her face. The mask caused more agony, as it touched the tender side of her mouth that had been burned.

Moments later a helicopter arrived to whisk her away to an emergency burn center in Norfolk, Va., where a trauma unit stood by.

"They put me under, which was a good thing, because they scrubbed me down to get rid of all the bad skin ... I didn't want to be awake for that," she said. "Then they placed a new type of scab-like adhesive over my wounds."

Luke had taken the blast to her left side. The worst burns were to her torso just above her armpit, where she said she still conceals a "really big scar." Then the left and front of her neck endured second-degree burns, as well as her left ear and left side of her face. Her left arm and both hands also suffered second-degree burns. Her left eyebrow and much of her hair on the left side of her head had been singed.

Luke said the worst part afterward was not having the use of her hands, which had to be heavily bandaged.

"I couldn't do the simple things ­-- like using the restroom, taking a shower or cooking ­-- on my own," she said.

But a Navy corpsman, Jennifer Detlefsen, whom Luke deemed "her angel," took the Airman in for a week and helped with all the essentials, including cleaning the pus oozing from her skin while Luke sat there in agony. Luke finished her month-long rehab at George Washington Hospital's burn and trauma unit in Washington D.C.

Her recovery allowed her time to think about what might have caused the accident and if she were at fault. An accident investigation later revealed that rust particles had formed in the charging port valve. Friction on the contaminants caused a spark that ignited the highly flammable oxygen.

While that meant she didn't cause the mishap, Luke still admitted she could have done some things that probably would have reduced the severity of her injuries.

"I should have been wearing flight gloves," said Luke, who is now the executive assistant for the 7th Bomb Wing command chief at Dyess AFB, Texas. "It's also recommended that you wear a flight jacket and face shield when working with the oxygen tanks. If I had been wearing all my personal protective gear, my injuries most likely would have been minimal. Additionally, you should ensure the collar is up and your sleeves are rolled down on your flight suit for more protection."

As bad as things were, though, they could have been much worse.

"The doctor showed me how damaged my flight suit was," Luke said. "Then he pointed out how lucky I was to be wearing one. He said if I had not been wearing my flight suit, I would have had even more damage to my face -- to the point of needing surgery. But the sleeve of my flight suit had partially covered the blast when I instinctively threw up my arm in a defensive posture.

"You hear it ­-- and even teach it ­-- all the time: 'The flight suit is fire retardant at 700 to 800 degrees.' But until something actually happens where you need it to work as advertised, it probably really doesn't sink in how important the flight suit is. After the mishap, I was like, 'Wow!' It saved my life."