Engulfed in flames from his head to his ankles, Gabriel Vigil heard a voice. It may have been his own voice, or the voice of another, he’s still not sure.
As titanium from the rims of glasses melted onto his face, the hard-working electrician, husband and father found himself at death’s doorstep.
At the moment, for reasons he’ll never be able to explain, Gabriel could not feel pain. Time stopped. He heard the voice: “If you’re going to live, I’m going to let you live, but you’re going to have to fight. But if you want to give up, and you want to die, I will take you right now.’’
Gabriel did not see a white light or a vision of his loved ones who had gone before him, though his life flashed before him, like a time-lapse movie. Wendy. The kids. Motocross racing. Disneyland. Christmas morning around the fireplace with the stockings hung, the kids’ names scrawled in glitter: Jordin, Dominic, Alex and Matthew.
He could not leave them.
Gabriel knew what it was like to grow up without an involved father and the emptiness it brings. Jordin needed him so much. Dominic was still in high school. Alex and Matthew needed someone to transport their motorcycles to the track.
In no time, pain, the color of white, set in. On fire in the basement of a downtown Denver hotel, Gabriel’s thoughts became razor sharp. He had to avoid infection, make no mistakes. He began to choreograph every move toward survival.
He had to live to see the beauty of their lives, the surprises that would come, the tiny miracles. He had to keep living, he had to walk through the fire.
Early life, before the electrical explosion
“The spark hit’’ soon after Gabriel and Wendy met back in high school. They married young.
At the tender age of 18, their first child, Jordin, now 22, was born. She has severe neurological disabilities and does not see, speak, sit up or walk. Wendy and Gabriel care for her much like they would care for an infant.
“She is my angel princess,’’ Gabriel says. “I carry her everywhere. She smiles when I go into the room and I’m like, ‘hi, baby.’ And she’ll give you the biggest smile in the world, you know. And then I’ll roll her, and she’ll ‘goo and ga’ sometimes.’’
Though she does not speak, she communicates through facial expressions. She wiggles her body.
“If she has a dirty diaper, she’s not happy. She’ll be frowning at you, like ‘diaper time,’’’ he says.
Gabriel and Wendy sought help from dozens of doctors across the nation and they care for Jordin in their Castle Rock home. Early on, Gabriel and Wendy knew they’d need good jobs to provide for her so Gabriel became an electrician; Wendy chose a career in health care.
Their love for Jordin is unwavering and it made the couple stronger and more determined. Gabriel’s own parents divorced when he was 5 and while his mother was his rock, his father was mostly absent after the divorce. Gabriel’s older brother looked after him and became a father figure, teaching Gabriel to play football aggressively and not to worry about running over opponents. In high school, Gabriel played wide receiver and safety and was one of the fastest kids on the team.
Outside the home, Gabriel’s brother fell in with the wrong crowd. In 1994, when Gabriel was 15 years old, his brother was shot to death in a gangland shooting at 32nd and Speer in Denver. Gabriel leaned into his mother and his faith, but after all these years, the loss of his brother still stings.
Wendy and Gabriel went on to have a son, Dominic, now a senior at Douglas County High School; and Alex, a motocross daredevil. Gabriel talked to his mother two or three times a day, and when she battled pancreatic cancer, he was at her side.
“My mom was the greatest thing on this planet to me. And when I lost her, it tore my soul. It sucked to see a beautiful woman go down like that because she was my angel,’’ he says.
His mother died before Matthew, now 5, was born. He’s also a motocross show-off.
A man on fire
Gabriel’s job that day in April 2019 in the basement of the Denver hotel was to transfer power to the hotel’s kitchen. While working on a large electrical panel – a ‘bucket’ in electricity vernacular – the panel arced.
“The blast was insanely powerful. I didn’t even feel the inertia from it, I guess it blew me across the room,’’ he says.
If Gabriel didn’t get out, he believed he would die.
“Help me. Help me!’’ he screamed. He tried ‘stop, drop and roll’ but it didn’t work, his body was still on fire. He yanked his shirt off. The buckle on his belt had melted.
“I’m trying to get my pants off, and I’m pulling off my pants, and I’m wearing these Red Wing boots and they will not come off. And that’s the only thing that’s left on fire on me is these frigging Carhartt pants. And I can feel it just smoldering my skin and I’m just getting tortured.’’
He reached down to undo the laces of his boots and had the presence of mind to use his left hand. He’s right-handed and knew the importance of preserving the mobility of his right hand.
“I just wanted to take care of my right hand, which I don’t know how to explain. So my left hand got totally jacked up. I almost lost this finger, this finger, this finger, my thumb,’’ he says, pointing to every digit but his pinkie finger.
He got his pants off. By this time, Gabriel’s co-worker had returned. He’d gone to find a key to the door, which no longer was needed.
“I was partially melted,’’ Gabriel says. “I don’t even know what I looked like but when I got on the side of those other doors, I saw my buddy, Billy, and he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God!’ He’s screaming, ‘let’s get the (expletive) out of here.’
“I was dying. My skin’s just dripping off of me, but I had enough strength to help him lift this huge dock door up. It’s all adrenaline, I don’t know what else it is.’’
Wearing only underwear, Gabriel walked outside onto the sidewalk at 17th and Lawrence in downtown Denver and a police officer wearing a body camera approached Gabriel and told him to lay on a bench outside the hotel.
“And when the cop came up, he thought I was a bum and then he got closer and he saw that I was frigging melting and he said, ‘Oh my God, lay on the bench,’ and I said: “That bench is dirty and I kept screaming, ‘I am dying. I am dying.’’’
Gabriel, still mentally razor-sharp, knew the bench could be a source of infection.
“Something was telling me, ‘don’t get infected. Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ I can’t explain it.’’
An ambulance went to the wrong address, so Gabriel writhed in pain waiting for the rig to drive around the block.
“When they saw me, they started freaking out because my flesh was falling off. So all I remember was getting up in the ambulance by myself, and it was impossibly painful. I laid back, I just fell back on the gurney, they put an IV in me, and I was out.’’
Surviving an electrical explosion
Paramedics whisked Gabriel to Denver Health, the closest hospital, where a breathing tube was inserted to keep him alive.
A nurse called Wendy to let her know her husband was being taken to UCHealth’s Burn and Frostbite Center – Anschutz Medical Campus, the first American Burn Association verified center in the Rocky Mountains.
“Receiving that phone call from the nurse at Denver Health, and having her tell me that Gabriel was in a fire and they didn’t think he would make it was the worst call anyone could ever get,’’ Wendy said. “When I arrived at University of Colorado Hospital, waiting for him to arrive and not knowing what to expect was the worst feeling imaginable.’’
Dr. Arek Wiktor, a surgeon specializing in burns, was among the first to see Gabriel.
“Every part of his body had a burn on it, except for his feet and his buttocks,’’ says Wiktor. “Everything else had some sort of burn – his face, neck, chest, abdomen, both arms, both hands, both legs — everything.’’
At the age of 40, with 77% of his body burned, Gabe had a 60% chance of dying, according to a calculation that doctors use during an initial assessment of burn patients. Gabe was placed in a medically-induced coma.
“So when he came to us, he was on the ventilator and we had to perform a ‘resuscitation,’ which involves giving a lot of fluids because burn patients lose a lot of fluid in the first few days. We had to ensure that his kidneys and heart were working well,’’ Wiktor says.
Doctors also performed escharotomies, making incisions in the burns to allow swelling to occur on Gabriel’s hands, arms and legs.
After three days of ‘resuscitation,’ Gabriel then went to the operating room four days in a row to remove all the skin with third-degree burns, which had burned down to the fat on his body but not muscle or bone.
“Third-degree burns mean that the entire skin is gone, it is not going to heal. It is dead, like leather,’’ Wiktor says.
With the burned skin removed, there was less risk of infection and the first step toward wound healing. During the surgeries, surgeons also performed allografting, which is to place cadaver skin over the open wounds to provide temporary coverage of open wounds.
“The allografts fool the body into thinking that there is skin, so patients have less fluid loss and less infection, instead of having raw, open wounds,’’ Wiktor says.
Being covered in cadaver skin, which is frozen and thawed before application, gave Gabriel the heebie-jeebies.
“It turns blue after a while. It’s all kinds of patches that they use, and your skin will reject it because it is not your skin. It creeped me out because I had a billion other people’s skin on me. It’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever been through.’’
Doctors had to wait for the right time to harvest Gabriel’s own skin because it would need to be taken from the few available donor sites on his body. Creating additional wounds would increase the risk of infection. As Gabriel grew stronger, doctors took donor skin from his lower abdomen, back, buttocks and the sides of his thighs and painstakingly grafted all of his burn wounds. Some skin was also sent to Boston, Massachusetts, where Gabriel’s own skin was grown in a lab. That skin was subsequently grafted back onto his body. Gabriel eventually underwent 11 surgeries in total.
Gabriel recovered in Room 322, which gave him a nudge of comfort. His mother’s birthday was March 22, and 322 is a good number for him. For many days, he was wrapped head to ankles in sterile dressings. He had frequent nightmares that played like a slow-motion movie. He was in the hotel basement again, on fire and unable to escape. Losing Wendy and the kids.
Caregivers calmed him, soothing him with kind words, and when he had healed enough, applied lotion to his back to help with intense itching.
“They were just so beautiful. I don’t even know what to do for them, but I just want them to know that I will remember them for the rest of my life.’’
Much of Gabriel’s anxiety came from worrying about how he looked. The world favors people with good looks, and he dwelled on the idea that people would shun him. Worst of all, would Wendy still be attracted to him?
“That part destroyed me,’’ he says. “I just wouldn’t want to put her through something like that, you know?’’
Wendy was resolute, as always. She came to the hospital every day. A nurse practitioner, she knows how to advocate for patients and encourage them. She shared stories about the kids, who were not allowed in the ICU burn unit, and she made him laugh.
“Seeing him doing so well and striving to get home to us was amazing. I knew he was strong, but this was unbelievable,’’ Wendy says.
On Day 77 of his hospital stay, Dr. Wiktor, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, chaplains, physical/occupational therapists, nutritionists – all those people who had become Gabriel’s angels, who had comforted him and cared for him 24 hours a day, had one more act of kindness. They threw a party celebrating Gabriel’s last day at the hospital.
No one told the kids that their dad was coming home. That was a delightful surprise.
Happiness and surprise accompany recovery
“When Gabriel came home, it was a miracle. “Everyone was overjoyed. The kids cried as soon as they saw him; they finally had their dad home.’’
Gabriel had made it back to his family – he’d accomplished his goal, even though he still had a long way to go. After coming home he gained a great deal of weight and was very deconditioned.
Initially, Gabriel lost weight in the hospital because burns make your body hypermetabolic, Dr. Wiktor says. Gabriel had to be fed extra calories through a feeding tube to give him extra nutrition so he could heal his wounds. Weight gain often follows after people leave the hospital, Wiktor says, because people are weaker and not moving around as much.
Gabriel set his mind to losing weight, started physical therapy, lifted weights daily and walked miles on the treadmill. By the time Christmas 2019 came, he was able to carry the kids’ Christmas gifts down a flight of stairs and place them under the tree.
After much effort, Gabriel lost the weight and just before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Wendy had huge news for Gabriel. She was pregnant with their fifth child.
For all that the couple had been through, nothing was more glorious for Gabriel than hearing that their family would be growing.
“God blessed us with a little girl,’’ Wendy says.
A few months into Wendy’s pregnancy, new challenges emerged. Because of preeclampsia, doctors decided to admit Wendy to a hospital, where she was on bed rest. Now, the tables had turned. It was Gabriel’s turn to visit her in the hospital. Each day, he brought her clothes, food, you name it.
At 34 weeks pregnant, for the health of Wendy and the baby, doctors scheduled an emergency cesarean section. Gabriel, of course, arrived that day for the birth. He didn’t have the stomach to watch the C-section, and he stood on the other side of a curtain that shielded him from the view of the birth.
Wendy took the opportunity to tease him: “They’re cutting me open, and you’re about ready to pass out?’’
Gabriel anxiously waited outside the curtain, when “All of a sudden, I hear a cry and there was this little hand that came out of the curtain. And I was like, ‘Wow! There’s my girl!’’’
Makayla weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces and she fit in the palm of his hand.
“That was one of the happiest moments of my life to see her alive and have 10 fingers and 10 toes. Just to be alive, it was amazing. It was one of the best days of my life, I’d have to say it is. Every single day of my kids’ births were the best, those five days.’’
Makayla’s first word, which Gabriel isn’t shy reminding people about, was “Dadda.’’ The youngest Vigil child is smothered with love from her brothers, who adore her.
In the months ahead, Dominic, 17, will graduate from high school and head to college in Arizona. Alexander, 10, and his little brother, Matthew, 5, will race on their motocross bikes every weekend. Gabriel will hook up their 20-foot trailer, load it with motocross bikes and four-wheelers and head to the track.
At home, Jordin will light up when her father comes into her room. He’ll pick her up and carry her out to the family room, where she’ll wiggle hearing the beautiful noise of a family together.
Gabriel still has frequent laser therapy to help with scarring. The laser drills thousands of microscopic holes into the scar tissue that has built up, allowing the body to remodel the scar tissue, making it softer and improving the appearance of the skin.
Gabriel can’t explain why he found himself caught in an unlucky draw, on fire from his head to his ankles in the basement of a Denver hotel. He hopes that his children have learned from him, that they know how hard he fought to be there for them, that the thing he cherishes most is being their father.
He wants them to always hear the voice, the one that strives for living an extraordinary life, the one filled with the desire to be there, to be healthy and present for the graduations, the weddings, the first words, the wiggles. The trips around the track.
“I think for them to know, that when it all comes down to it, I’m thankful to be alive. I am thankful to have my breath every day and to say, ‘thank you. I am breathing.’
“Because that is huge.’’