'You're my hero' - teen to mother who saved him from fire

2017-07-13 12:04
The burnt house (Adrian de Kock, Netwerk24)

The burnt house (Adrian de Kock, Netwerk24)

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Cape Town – "Mom, you are my hero," a 14-year-old boy told his mother as he was being taken by ambulance to Tygerburg Hospital's burns unit on Friday morning.

"I cried then," Lelani Vermaak told Netwerk24 from her hospital bed in the Louis Leipoldt Medi-Clinic in Boston, Cape Town, where she spoke about the terrifying night when she rescued her children from an inferno.

Lelani said people always said she would walk though fire for her children. And she did.

When Lelani opened the door to her son’s room last week Friday at about 01:00, it was filled with smoke. She initially couldn’t see him and called him. Then she heard "Mom, help me!".

Skin peeling off

She stormed through the flames. "When I picked him up, his skin was peeling off."

Vermaak carried her burning son from his room to the passage of the house they are renting and asked if it was okay with him that she roll him on the floor to extinguish the flames on his body. 

Lelani made sure that her son was out the front door before fetching her 5-year-old daughter from her room. She was fast asleep.

Meanwhile, her husband Morné had woken up and tried to extinguish the fire. Next thing she saw was her son, despite his serious burns, running around the house and trying to douse the fire in his room from the outside with a hose.

Lelani struggled to phone an emergency number and called the neighbours. As luck would have it, an ambulance had just driven past and made a U-turn for them. 

They could at last be treated for their burns. She said the fire brigade arrived about 45 minutes later and extinguished the flames.

She only realised that she too had been burnt when she used the neighbour’s toilet and couldn’t help herself.

'Iron man'

It was only after her son was on his way to Tygerberg Hospital’s burns unit from Karl Bremer Hospital, where they’d initially been treated, that she could start calming down.

"Mom, don't worry, I am Iron man!", the teenager said before being placed in a medically induced coma.

He underwent surgery on Tuesday, and Lelani hasn’t been able to see him since. She was transferred to Louis Leipoldt Medi-Clinic to treat the burns on her hands and feet and underwent an operation on Monday.

She can’t wait to visit her son.

He plays for his school's under-14 A rugby team, and his coach and teammates are visiting him every day.

He was wrapped in bandages from head to toe and has burns in his throat, but apparently not in his lungs.

Morné says the bandages have been removed from his son's face and according to a doctor there won’t be any permanent damage and he won’t be badly scarred. The dead skin will still have to be removed from his back, chest and arms, but his vital signs are stable. 

Critical condition

However, he is still in a critical condition and on life-support.

"It’s better to keep him in a coma, because the wounds are very painful,” said Morné. “He has 60% burns and his body is in shock. His face is still very swollen, but it just looks like severe sunburn."

Morné and their daughter are unhurt and are staying in a guesthouse. The little girl is receiving counselling. "She is getting terrible nightmares," said Lelani.

The family’s sausage dog, who was sleeping in the teenager's room, died in the fire, but their Pitt Bull Terrier survived.

Little is left of the house and just a few pieces of furniture and appliances escaped the flames. "You won’t believe it, but my walls were completely white," said Lelani while paging with her bandaged hands through pictures on her cellphone of their burnt home.  In her son's room, everything was burnt to ashes.

"I’ve cried so much, because I kept thinking 'what if'... But Jesus let me run through flames without feeling any pain," she said. She was calm and relaxed in the clinic on Wednesday.

"It's Jesus. He woke me up," she says. "I get breakdowns when it is quiet... My child isn’t with me. I can’t even walk, all I can do is pray for him."

Morné says experts suspect that the fire was caused by a short in the roof.

Read more on:    cape town  |  fires

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