After the Fire


You might think that life would be bleak for a mother and daughter severely injured in a house fire. You would be wrong.

For more than 40 years Duane and Leona Clatworthy have measured time as “before the fire” and “after the fire.” Before the fire, they busied themselves with remodeling their 19th-century farmhouse and looked ahead to building a new home someday. Before the fire, their lives were filled with the normal, everyday activities of a family of six. After the fire, their perspective on family, on the priesthood, and on the nature and purpose of trials would never be the same.

* * *

February 7, 1963, was a sunny day in the countryside near Darby, Montana. The sun sparkled on the white snow and shone in through the huge new windows in the Clatworthy home, filling the front room with light. Duane Clatworthy had gone to work, and the three oldest Clatworthy children were at school. Leona was reading a book to five-year-old Melanie, and the family dog was curled up at their feet. Absorbed in the book, Leona put off relighting the wood stove, which had gone out some time earlier.

But the room was starting to get cold. When they finished the book, Leona put kindling and wood into the stove and threw in a match. Suddenly a loud bang pierced the air. Creosote had built up on the bricks lining the two-story chimney, and the chimney had exploded. Almost instantaneously, flames began devouring the century-old wooden farmhouse.

Ignoring the severe burns that covered her body, Leona’s first thought was of her daughter. Because the raging fire blocked all exits out of the room except for one window, Leona decided in one moment to jump through the window and have Melanie jump to her. She broke through the glass and fell to the ground, then screamed for Melanie to jump. After an agonizing few seconds, Melanie’s face appeared at the window, flames lapping at her hair and skin. She finally leaped into her mother’s arms, and Leona rolled on the ground with her daughter to put out the flames.

Leona scrambled to her feet, scooped Melanie up again in her damaged arms, and started running and stumbling the three-fourths of a mile to the nearest neighbor’s home, scarcely able to see. “Melanie,” she gasped through tortured breaths, “when you see the McCrossins’ house, you must yell! Yell for help!”

The road was icy and treacherous at that time of year, but Leona forged ahead, ignoring the agony that accompanied every step. When the house finally came into view, Melanie cried out to Alice McCrossin, who was walking across her yard. Alice took one look at the bleeding, blackened figure staggering up the road with a child in its arms, and screamed and ran the other direction.

“What should I do? I can’t go any farther!” Leona despaired. But Alice soon reappeared with her husband, and, fighting back panic, she and her husband helped put Leona and Melanie into their car and rushed to the hospital.

When doctors in the small country hospital saw Leona and Melanie, they agreed the prognosis was grim. Leona’s body was 60 percent devoid of skin, and 90 percent of the skin on her daughter’s body was gone. With so little skin, their bodies were subject to infection and almost certain death.

A Priesthood Blessing

Not long after Leona and Melanie arrived at the hospital, their branch president, LeGrande Mouritsen, and Dan Blodgett, a bishop who worked at a nearby business, were summoned to give them a blessing. Brother Blodgett blessed both mother and child that they would live and that Leona would be able to continue raising her family and serving the Lord. At the conclusion of the blessing, the doctor pulled Bishop Blodgett aside. “Don’t tell them they’ll live!” he said. “They can’t live for 30 minutes!”

Meanwhile, Duane Clatworthy had been notified of the fire. After discovering that his wife and daughter were not at the house, he rushed to the hospital. As he walked down the hall, he was met by the hospital administrator. “Please,” said the administrator gravely, “stop and prepare yourself for what you are about to see.” But there was no way Duane could have prepared himself for the sight that awaited him.

Leona had been a very attractive woman. Now her flesh was black and red and swollen, and her nose and eyelids had been burned off. What was left of her hair was matted and singed. In the adjoining room, doctors surrounded Melanie’s bed, but Duane could see that his little daughter was as severely burned as her mother.

The doctor took Duane by the arm and ushered him out into the hallway. “I’m sorry, but your daughter will live not until morning,” he told Duane. “All we can do is give her some shots of painkiller. And there is only a small chance that your wife will survive. We will wait until morning before we clean the wounds; otherwise her body won’t be able to withstand the shock.”

Duane remained at the hospital that night in his own state of shock. He poured out his heart in silent prayer, pleading for Heavenly Father to bless his wife and little girl.

“During that time, my Heavenly Father and I became very close,” he says. “By the time the sun came up the next morning, I knew that they would live, as I had received that promise. I also knew there was a power so great that I neither could nor would ever deny it.”

Divine Help

Leona and Melanie did survive that night, and the next, and the next. Both were the recipients of divine help during the dark hours and difficult months and years that followed.

Melanie remembers one night when she lay in her hospital bed, alone, frightened, and unable to sleep. She prayed for help and then sensed a warm, comforting presence by her bed. “I thought it was one of the doctors,” she says. When the doctor entered her room the next day, she asked him if he had been there the previous night. He hadn’t.

Leona and Melanie received many priesthood blessings during that time—indeed, the priesthood has been the anchor to Melanie’s testimony ever since. “Because I knew the priesthood was real, there had to be a God, and the Church had to be true,” she says. “My testimony of the priesthood made the rest of my testimony grow.”

When Leona and Melanie were transferred to separate hospitals in Salt Lake City for more extensive treatment, Duane remained behind to care for the other children, making trips to Utah when he could. But he was concerned that his daughter would be alone in a hospital without any family nearby, so he called a couple in Salt Lake he had met once before, Dirk and Truus Allart, and asked if they would look out for Melanie. They agreed without hesitation.

When they visited Melanie for the first time at Primary Children’s Hospital, they saw a little girl swathed in bandages, unable to use her hands or feet. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do,” Truus recalls. “We couldn’t take her any toys because of the sanitary environment. She wouldn’t have been able to handle them anyway. So we said to her, ‘What is it you would like us to do?’ She said, ‘Sing.’ And we said, ‘What is it you would like us to sing?’ She said, ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.’ Such faith for a little girl!”

Duane and Leona leaned on the Lord for strength in living through the ordeal. Not long after the fire, their former bishop came for a visit. “He was afraid that we would be angry at God,” says Leona. “But the gospel was our strength; it was what we clung to.”

Accepting Aid

Many people offered support and love to the Clatworthys as they struggled to heal and rebuild their lives. There were the medical professionals who devoted extra hours to their care, the relatives who rallied around the family, and the women of the stake Relief Society, as well as many of their friends, who helped stock the home that Duane rebuilt. There were the women from a nearby town who gave the Clatworthys’ twin daughters a huge birthday party, where they gained new clothes and many new friends. And there were the acquaintances who became members of the family, like the Allarts, as they stepped in to fill needs.

At first, it was difficult for Duane to accept the proffered help. “It was hard for me until a bishop sat me down and said, ‘Now, look. These people want to help; they want to be part of your life, and you can’t deny them that blessing. If you don’t want to accept things they want to give you, accept them for your family.’

“For someone who wants to be the provider, it’s hard,” Duane says. “You have to humble yourself.”

Sealed in the Temple

Duane and Leona had always loved their family, but the fire sharpened their focus and made them realize how precious and sacred their family relationships were. Duane had joined the Church four years before the fire, but the family had not been sealed. After the fire, they realized the urgency of completing their temple work. So Duane and Leona decided that as soon as they arrived in Salt Lake City, where Leona was to be admitted to the hospital, they would become sealed in the Salt Lake Temple.

Before the trip, however, a staph boil on one of Duane’s fingers developed into a serious case of blood poisoning. Duane received treatment but was in a great deal of pain.

Both Duane and Leona visited the temple with their arms and hands wrapped in bandages. “We had taken pain pills just before we went in,” says Leona. “The medication wore off while we were in the temple, but we were sealed as husband and wife for eternity. It was worth the pain.”

Several years later, after Melanie was well enough to return home, the entire family was sealed in the Cardston Alberta Temple.

Healing

Leona’s and Melanie’s healing took place over many months and years. Melanie endured more than 100 surgeries to repair the damage done to her body. One leg was removed below the knee, and her eyelids, nose, and ears were reconstructed. Skin grafts were performed on her face. Today, Melanie uses a prosthetic leg, and she is unable to straighten the fingers on her right hand.

Leona had approximately 15 reconstructive surgeries, including skin grafts to her face. It took nearly a year for one of her lungs to return to full capacity, and it was three years before she could hold a spoon or a fork. Numerous sessions of physical therapy helped strengthen her stiffened hands, which had once played the piano so skillfully.

Since the fire, Leona has served as a Relief Society president several times, has had many teaching callings, and has accepted public speaking assignments. But her lack of self-consciousness over her appearance did not come easily. The first time she appeared in public was on a Sunday. Duane helped her get ready—her hands were still unusable—and aided her as she walked to the car. As they drew near the church building, dread filled Leona’s heart. “I looked like I was wearing a scary Halloween mask,” she says. How would people react? Would they look away? She was Primary president at the time. Would the children be afraid?

“I can’t do this,” Leona told Duane. “Yes, you can,” he responded. He helped her get seated on the couch in the foyer and then left for a meeting. And then the children started arriving with their parents. “They all ran up and wanted to give me hugs and tell me how sorry they were,” Leona says. “They had been coached well by their parents and teachers. None of them acted afraid or shy.”

But going out in public was still difficult. The following week, Duane informed her they were going to town to do some shopping. Leona said, “Not me.”

That, says Leona, was one of the few times Duane was ever truly upset with her. “He told me I was going with him, and if I did not stop that nonsense, I would be as scarred on the inside as I was on the outside. I let him get me dressed, and we went shopping. No one ran and hid, although some little children would point and ask their mothers what happened.”

For Melanie, because she was a young child, the change in her appearance was easier to accept. “Melanie has never fussed about the scars,” says Leona. “That part has never been a problem.”

Melanie explains, “Because I understood the plan of salvation, it was easy for me to accept that I am a child of God and that my body will be perfect at some point.” Despite using an artificial leg, she has gone cross-country skiing, rock climbing, and hang gliding. “I don’t think I ever thought there was a lot I couldn’t do,” she says.

Today Melanie is married and has four children. “To me, my wife is beautiful,” says her husband, Mike Ploharz, who first met her in high school. “I can’t imagine not being with her.”

Why Not Us?

After the fire, there were times when Duane and Leona wondered, “Why me? Why us?”

“That’s just human nature,” says Duane. “But then you go on about your life. When you have something this traumatizing in your life, you don’t realize what is ahead. The only thing you can do is go from day to day and address the challenge that day. I still live my life that way. We plan ahead and do things we need to do, but if things don’t go right today, we’ll adapt our life and assume it will go better tomorrow.”

Melanie remembers accompanying her mother to visit a sister in the ward who was facing some challenges. The woman took a despairing look at Leona and her daughter and asked, “Why did this have to happen to you?”

“Why not?” Leona responded.

“I think that was the attitude that permeated our experience—why wouldn’t something like this happen to us?” Melanie says now. “Bad things happen to people all the time. But trials lead to spiritual maturity; absence of trials can result in spiritual immaturity. I’ve learned that God lets us have trials because He loves us and He wants us to learn and grow. And often the scars that are the hardest to deal with are those on the inside, not the outside.”

While Leona, Melanie, and Duane will talk openly about their experiences, they prefer to focus on the present and the future. But they recognize that their experiences have helped shape their perspective on life. They know that while those who turn to the Lord may not always have their trials removed, they can be blessed with the strength to handle their trials—as were the people of Alma whose burdens became light (see Mosiah 24:14–15).

In the 40 years after the fire, the Clatworthys have seen the hand of the Lord in their lives, and they have developed an increased appreciation for family and for the gospel plan. While none of them would ever choose to live through the experience again, they are grateful for the lessons they’ve learned.

“In many ways this experience has been a blessing for our whole family,” says Melanie. “We have more of an eternal perspective. And we know that when things get hard, we can still get through it, and we can be better for having had the experience.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Greg Thorkelson

[photo] Shown here with a nurse two and a half months after the fire, Melanie has had her right leg removed below the knee. At this point, Leona’s hands are still useless.

[photo] The Clatworthys and their grown daughters near the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple. Back row, left to right: Dawn Olsen, Duane Clatworthy, Diane Good; front: Melanie Ploharz, Leona Clatworthy, Susan Stahl.