Paul Harris, 20, felt fortunate to have a job working as a roughneck, drilling, laying, and digging up pipe for water wells. He wasn’t thrilled about the job, but at least it supported his destructive habits.
Until one day.
“It started out like any other day, but this day changed my life forever—looking back, I see that it was one miraculous event after another,” said Harris, now 52.
After retrieving and loading 800 feet of pipe onto a 1965 GMC, Harris’s workmate and driver, Dave, decided to get some well-deserved refreshments at a nearby gas station—that’s when their vehicle started to fail.
“Dave is pumping the brakes, downshifting and we were still not stopping,” Harris said. He then grabbed the emergency brake, stopping inches away from a parked tractor-trailer.
Immediately, they called their boss to report the problem. Showing up with brake fluid, the boss assured them everything would be OK and they must continue driving.
“Dave is pumping the brakes, I’m looking at the wheels and oil is squirting out profusely,” Harris said. “I knew it was bad, and no way would we make it another 20 miles.”
At first, Harris refused to get back into the failed vehicle.
“I’m 20 years old, arguing with my boss, but he intimidated me and made me feel guilty and stupid, so reluctantly I got back in the truck.”
Stopping several times to add more brake fluid, they continued down the freeway. Harris was fixated on the construction zone ahead when Dave started grinding gears and smashing on the brakes.
“Jump! We’re not going to make it!” the driver yelled.
Harris tried to open the door but the airflow kept it shut.
“It happened so fast yet, it was in slow motion,” Harris said.
After plowing through construction signs and hitting a K-rail, the truck flew over two lanes of traffic and landed upside down in a ravine. Still holding onto the door handle, Harris tried to push open the door. No luck.
“I remember being amazed I wasn’t hurt, not even a scratch.”
Turning to check on Dave, he saw that a pipe had pierced the cab and the driver.
“I started shaking his shoulder, telling him to get out, to get moving. I saw that he was decapitated but I didn’t want to believe he was dead. I just wanted him to get out,” Harris said.
That’s when Harris noticed the flames coming from underneath.
As flames engulfed the cab, Harris hammered the side window with his elbow but only hurt himself. Frantically, he began kicking the windshield.
“My hair was on fire, my face was melting, but I’m still kicking and kicking. I know I’m going to die if I don’t get out. I kick the windshield one last time with everything I got—and it doesn’t break.”
Surrendering to Fate
Exhausted, Harris laid with his feet on the glass and surrendered to his fate. He didn’t have one drop of energy left. For the first time, just for a split second, he thought of a higher power.
“All of a sudden, the window fell out, it was like God reached down and lifted me out of the gates of hell,” he said. He crawled out feet first and upon standing, he was blasted by a CO2 fire extinguisher. An employee from a Denny’s restaurant had seen the accident, grabbed an extinguisher, and was there the second Harris emerged from the flaming cab.
“CO2 was the best thing that could be used on a burning person because it is cold and sterile. I was instantly saved from fire,” Harris said.
Looking up, he saw that the employee was about to help the driver. Harris warned him: “Stop! He is dead! The truck is going to blow—run!” The employee fled but Harris was only able to take two steps before the explosion.
Miraculously, the flames and debris missed Harris. Looking down, Harris saw that his hands were completely black with deep cracks.
“I didn’t pass out but my brain thought I saw enough and I temporarily lost my vision,” he said.
Later, he found out that the paramedics who showed up immediately were at the intersection waiting for a light when they witnessed the accident. Harris was medevaced to the Sherman Oaks burn center; his nurse also happened to be at the intersection and had witnessed the accident.
Looking back, Harris said the accident was one miracle after another.
“It actually saved my life and was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I promise you, I didn’t think so at the time. I was addicted to drugs and alcohol, I was a very lost soul and not a good person. After the accident, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to … abuse drugs—and better yet, they were free!” he said.
With more than 85 percent of his body burned and enduring more than 100 surgeries, Harris focused on the few parts of his body that didn’t hurt.
“It’s all a matter of perspective. Ten on my pain level is probably not the same as your 10.” Harris said he died four times on the operating table and had a vision of demons consuming him. “It was as real and scary as being burned alive. I knew I had to change my life.”
He attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and has been sober for nearly 30 years. With God’s help, he said, he was able to accept his situation. At 20, he said he was fortunate to get a glimpse of what a gift it is to be alive. He is a member of the motorcycle club Messengers for Recovery and is helping addicts.
“The doctors said I probably would not live past the age of 40 and I should be extremely careful of infections and injuring myself.”
After the accident, Harris married and had two children; he divorced 20 years later. Through it all, he doesn’t regret one day of what he calls his “fabulous life.” He rides motocross with his 19-year-old son and enjoys spending time with his daughter and her family. After running his own septic company for several years, he is ready to retire and spend his time with friends in Lake Havasu, on the border between California and Arizona.
“Never let a doctor or anyone tell you how long you are expected to live or what you can or can not do,” he said. Harris placed in motocross competitions, shattered his collarbone, and lost a finger while racing, but that still hasn’t slowed him down.
“Life is too short to spend one second living in fear,” he said.
Harris is in the process of rewriting his book, “Living Your Destiny” with remarks by Mark Victor Hansen, author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul;” Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People;” and financial expert Robert Allen.
Linda KC Reynolds began her photography career in the U.S. Air Force. After serving six years, she worked full-time for Northrop Grumman on the B-2 stealth bomber and now freelances for various aerospace companies and other venues. She is passionate about free speech, musical production, and sharing peoples’ stories.