For the first time since the fire, Jessica Johnson’s daughter hugged her.
It was Wednesday, Chazidy Johnson’s fifth birthday and the morning of her mother’s latest surgery.
“She’s coming around a little bit,” Jessica Johnson said by phone as she rode to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., with her aunt.
Chazidy had been uneasy around her mother since she saw her screaming in pain on the night of Jan. 10. That evening, a pot of grease exploded as Jessica Johnson rushed to move it outside. Flames clung to the 28-year-old’s body. Her two children, who were just returning from a visit with her sister, arrived at their Conway area home just after the fire ignited. The blaze destroyed the doublewide the single mother shared with them.
“She lost everything in the fire,” said Susan Bowen, Jessica Johnson’s aunt. “She’s going to have to start all over from scratch.”
Since the fire, loved ones set up the Jessica and Kids Burn Fund at Bank of America. Other friends have tried to collect clothes and toys.
“Even if they can’t make a donation, their prayers are greatly appreciated,” Bowen said. “Because that’s what’s getting us by right now.”
The challenge is much more than a financial one. Wrapped in bandages like a mummy, Jessica Johnson is struggling just to function with her injuries. There will be skin grafts and more surgeries.
“They’re giving me until around May to try to even start healing,” she said. “I’ve got two months to go, several surgeries.”
Jessica Johnson had already been on a rough streak before the fire. She’d been carving out a living cleaning condos when pneumonia sidelined her last fall. Health problems kept her in and out of the hospital. When winter arrived, she struggled to find work.
The week of the fire, a doctor told her she’d ruptured her eardrum. Her car broke down as she was leaving the physician’s office. She’ll have to replace the motor.
On Saturday evening, Jessica Johnson began warming some grease to fry chicken. She was waiting on Chazidy and her 6-year-old son Jamari to return from a visit with her sister.
“It slipped my mind about the grease, carrying on on the phone with my sister,” she said. “When I went around the corner, it was just kind of too late. … I tried to save the house, and I picked the pot up, trying to throw it out the back door. It blew up. I don’t even remember really. I just know that fire and grease went everywhere and I was on fire.”
She suffered severe burns on her face, arms, chest, hands and feet, many of them third-degree.
In between surgeries, the Johnson family has been staying with her mother and aunt.
“It’s kind of a tight squeeze,” she said. “But we really have no choice right now.”
Apart from the physical pain, Jessica Johnson is dealing with emotional trauma. When a woman on television started cooking with grease, she had to change the channel. A smoke alarm sent her into a panic attack.
One night, she slept with an open water bottle beside her bed because using her charred hands to turn the cap was painful. When the water spilled, she started screaming, terrified it would flow into an electrical socket.
“I’m just scared,” she said.
Then there are her children. Her son’s birthday arrives later this month, but his mother will miss it because of a surgery. Jamari has handled things better because he’s older, she said. Her daughter is another story.
“She don’t understand it,” Jessica Johnson said. “She just says that until I get better, she don’t want to be around me.”
But Wednesday’s hug, that was a breakthrough. And Jessica Johnson hopes it’s a sign that some healing is already underway.