Tega Cay family holding out hope for son's recovery after outdoor fireplace accident

mbalasco@heraldonline.comDecember 27, 2008 

Karin McKemey said she has the most amazing neighbors. One of them rescued her 13-year-old son, Connor McKemey, when he was burned during the eruption of an outdoor fireplace at their Tega Cay home.

"He came running out and sacrificed himself to get Connor put out," Karin said, referring to the risk a neighbor took to help them. "Then he pulled everybody together."

The neighbor, Daniel Tucker, a Tega Cay volunteer firefighter, extinguished the fire on Connor and tended to the injuries of both Connor and Karin, who was burned while trying to help her son. Tucker declined to talk about the event Friday.

Karin didn't want to talk about details of the Sunday evening accident. She said the events that followed are sketchy in her mind, but she talked about how the family is coping.

"We are hanging in there," she said.

Connor and Karin McKemey, 40, were flown late Sunday to an Augusta, Ga., burn hospital. Connor remained in critical condition Friday, while Karin is in good condition, hospital spokeswoman Beth Frits said.

The cause of the fire's eruption from the stone fireplace has not been determined, but it is ruled an accident, said Scott Szysmanski, chief of the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department.

George McKemey, Connor's father and Karin's husband, was on a flight back from active duty in Iraq when the accident happened, Karin said.

He learned of the incident just moments after Connor and Karin were transported by an ambulance to Tega Cay's Runde Field to be flown to the burn center. George McKemey had called home to update his wife about his travel plans and was told about the accident by his 15-year-old son, Tripp.

"He came from one horrible situation to another," Karin said in a telephone interview Friday from her room at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center. "It's been hard on him."

Connor suffered mostly third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, she said, which doctors say is severe.

"He has a long road, but doctors are extremely cautiously optimistic," Karin said. Connor has been a good student and a star athlete, playing on Gold Hill Middle School's football and soccer teams and on a Fort Mill lacrosse team.

This week, Connor has undergone several surgeries to cleanse his wounds, but he faces many more -- possibly 30 to 40 in the next six months.

Samples of Connor's skin were harvested Monday and sent to a Massachusetts lab to be grown into skin grafts, which he can receive in about three weeks, Karin said.

His condition is fragile, she said.

"Right now, they are just trying to keep him stable and pray for no infection, no pneumonia," Karin said. "It's one of those long, long waiting games."

Karin said she saw Connor for the first time on Monday.

"It was painful to see him," she said.

She visits Connor several times each day. She reads him stories and gives him messages that friends have left for him on the Caring Bridge Web site. The site was set up by family friend Reid Lancaster to help keep friends and family abreast of the McKemeys' recoveries.

On Christmas night, while Karin and George were visiting with Connor, George asked his son if he could hear them. Connor nodded his head.

"That was our Christmas miracle," said Karin, an audio/visual communications teacher at Fort Mill High School.

Karin, who suffered second- and third-degree burns trying to put out the fire on her son's body, said her burns were minimal compared to her son's.

The burns cover both of Karin's hands, the right side of her face and her right leg and foot. She has undergone surgery on her hands and face. Her hands are bandaged, and she is unable to use them. She said she will require more surgery on her hands, and physical therapy to regain use of them.

The right side of Karin's face is covered in pigskin, which is used to temporarily cover the burned area until it is ready for grafting in about seven days.

Karin said the experience has taught her a lesson in humility.

"When they are wheeling me to go see my son and you're burned and people are staring at you, it's hard," she said.

But she said the couple and their two other sons, Tripp and Quinn, 12, are trying to put their lives back together with the help of friends and family while they hold on to hope for Connor.

On Friday, family members took Quinn and friends took Tripp to their homes to give them a break from the hospital, where they have been since late Sunday. Neighbors brought Christmas presents to the hospital so the family could open them together, Karin said.

George has been given an extended leave from returning to active duty in Iraq until Connor is discharged from the hospital, said Karin.

Karin is expected to be discharged from the hospital today, and the McKemeys have secured housing at an army base near the burn center, so they can stay with their son.

"I ask every day, when can I breathe? When can you tell me he's out of the woods?" Karin said. "They say they can't tell me when that will be."

Mary Jo Balasco • 803-329-4067

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