A Fiery Trial


The flames nearly killed him, but he determined that his spirit would not be scarred.

Sunday evening, 14 July 1991, was still very hot in La Verkin, Utah. My parents were out of town, and I was on my way to check on their home. As my car jerked over the rough lane in the orchard, I reflected on Church services held earlier that day.

My wife, Linda, and I had taught a Primary lesson on tithing. We’d told our class of eleven-year-olds that paying our tithing had helped see us through some tight spots in our six months of marriage. Now as I drove, I was also grateful for the priesthood and for several blessings that had miraculously spared my life. Spared my life for service, I’d been told. I wondered if my work as a car painter really put me in a position to meaningfully serve others.

Suddenly I remembered that in the back of my sun-baked car were two gallon containers of lacquer thinner and some other volatile liquid. I knew that the bumpy road and scorching heat posed a threat to these liquids, but I was close to the smooth main road and would soon be out of immediate danger. I made a mental note to remove my flammable cargo as soon as I got home.

Then it happened. Without warning, the containers exploded and flames engulfed the interior of my car. Stunned, I shut my eyes against the searing blast—and opened them an instant later to see my body on fire. I clawed at my seat belt, but it wouldn’t release. Pain shot through me as the flames spread. I jerked on the door handle. Jammed! My hand was on fire as I frantically pulled again at the seat belt. Stuck! I was trapped in the inferno.

My only hope was the open window, but the seat belt held me pinned at my chest and waist. I strained mightily for the window. The seat belt must have melted through just as the car struck a dirt embankment. I was ejected out the window.

Writhing beside the road, I glanced at the nearby flaming car and knew I must get away. I dragged myself to my feet, my body on fire. Running, I screamed for help, then rolled down a hill. A young man and his father ran after me and extinguished the flames on my back. Skin was melting off of my hands and arm, and I felt excruciating pain.

“Call an ambulance!” I screamed. It seemed that time stood still as I waited for help. I had to find water. At the nearest house, a tap stood out amid tall vegetation. I rushed to it and drenched myself with cold water, which relieved my pain a bit.

One onlooker asked me if I wanted a priesthood blessing. I said yes, and the man, whom I recognized as my distant cousin Norman Gubler, asked me, “What’s your name?”

“Terry Evan Earl!” I exclaimed, surprised that he didn’t seem to recognize me.

“I’ve known Terry all his life. You don’t look like him,” Norman said.

My face was charcoal black, and one ear drooped like melting wax; both of my arms were terribly burned. Norman and a neighbor, Jim Crabtree, placed their hands on my charred head and pronounced a blessing that I would reach the hospital for needed care.

An ambulance finally arrived. An attendant cut off my shredded shirt and my temple garment top. My back was burned but not my chest. My garments had partially protected my body. The severe burns on my right arm stopped just below my shoulder. Upon seeing my reflection in the ambulance window, I doubted that I would even make it to the hospital, so intense was my suffering.

When I was admitted to Dixie Regional Medical Hospital in St. George, it was recorded that 40 percent of my body had been burned. Another cousin, LaMar Gubler, and Bishop Raymond Eaves administered to me although I was incoherent and in shock.

Linda was brought to the hospital shortly thereafter. She had been warned that I might not live—and that if I did survive, I would surely lose my right hand and ear. Soon I was transported by Life Flight helicopter to University Hospital in Salt Lake City. I knew the power of the priesthood was in operation when I learned, after arriving at the hospital’s burn center, that only 11.5 percent of my body had been burned!

Still, I was in critical condition. During my first night, I almost died from the toxic fumes I had inhaled. Tubes were inserted into my stomach to prevent excess gas from forming ulcers. Other tubes helped me eat and breathe.

On the tenth day, they grafted skin from my left leg onto my right arm and hand. My left arm sustained only second-degree burns, and my right leg, though severely burned, did not require grafts. Even so, the pain was so unbearable that I felt I was losing my mind.

I told the Lord that although I knew he doesn’t test us more than we can bear, I couldn’t stand any more pain. I prayed to die, but I sensed the Lord’s answer: “No, I need you here to serve others.” Linda’s mother brought me a measure of comfort by reading to me from the Book of Mormon. The combined faith and prayers of many other people, especially my numerous relatives, helped sustain me as well. And my name was on the prayer roll at the temple.

Upon hearing the bad news, Linda’s sister in Wyoming told her children, “Pray for Uncle Terry. He may not live.” Seven-year-old Jessica went directly to her room to pray. She doesn’t get off her knees until she receives her answer. She pleaded with the Lord and waited until a warm feeling assured her that her Uncle Terry wasn’t going to die and that he’d be all right.

My own prayers were answered, too. At first the doctors expected me to be hospitalized for three months. In three weeks I was released, though I returned periodically for therapy. The doctors said that mine was the best skin graft they’d seen in twenty-five years. The graft had adhered perfectly, with no dead skin sloughing off. Infections are common, but I had none. All this I attribute to priesthood blessings and prayers from my many supporters, along with the work of a qualified medical staff.

During my recovery, Linda and I faced an enormous debt. As newlyweds, we had been struggling financially before my accident. Now, as staggering medical bills piled up, our financial ruin seemed assured despite our medical insurance coverage. But we recalled that the Lord had always blessed us for paying our tithing. Tithing had always been our best insurance policy. Surely the Lord somehow would see us through our distress.

Our welfare rested on my earning ability. Our generous parents and relatives could stretch no further, so two months after my accident, I found temporary work with a roofing company kind enough to accept my physical limitations. I wore a nylon glove that protected the skin grafts on my hand and arm. My leg, in areas where the skin had been removed for grafts, had not finished healing. But I persevered and was blessed to be free of any infections. Within four months I found permanent employment. I often worked ten-hour days—a real financial blessing.

Today, nearly three years since my accident, we are almost out of debt. And when I’m dressed in a suit, no one can tell I’ve been burned. My face shows no scars, and those on my left hand have faded. The ugly scars on my right arm don’t bother me or Linda—they continually remind us to count our blessings. And when people do notice my scars and ask me what happened, I’m eager to testify of God’s goodness, of the healing power of the priesthood, and of the rewards of paying tithing.

[illustration] Illustrated by Keith Larson

Terry Earl serves as Blazer A Primary teacher in the La Verkin First Ward, La Verkin Utah Stake.

Dora D. Flack is ward music director in the Bountiful Twenty-fourth Ward, Bountiful Utah Heights Stake.