Long recovery hasn’t cost Chugiak teen sense of humor

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 12:57
  • Kolton Hala, right, poses for a photo with his mom, Jamie Keebler, and sister, Kynnley, during an interview at the Star offices on Jan. 12. Hala, 17, suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body on Oct. 8, 2016 when gasoline he was using to try and start a fire ignited his clothing. (Photo/Matt Tunseth/For the Star)

Covered in bandages like a mummy, Kolton Hala just couldn’t help himself when a server at Garcia’s Mexican restaurant in Eagle River delivered the customary hot-plate warning before serving him and his friends last year.

“I said, ‘It’s okay, I’ve been burned before,’” recalled the Chugiak teen, who suffered third-degree burns to his upper body and face in the fall of 2016.

Hala lost a lot that October night — he spent a month in ICU, left school and missed out on starting a new job — but his sense of humor has remained fully intact.

“He’s a tough kid,” said his mom, Jamie Keebler.

Hala will have to endure more surgeries, but counts himself lucky his injuries weren’t worse. And now that he’s on the mend, he wants to use his outgoing personality and sense of humor to help others avoid making the same mistakes he did when his decision to use gasoline as a bonfire starter nearly cost him his life.

“Most humor comes from a very dark place,” Hala said.

And he also wants people to know about the work done by the volunteer rescuers he credits with saving his life.

“They’re pretty amazing.”

Gloomy night

Hala’s ordeal began on a typical Saturday night in Chugiak. He was at his dad’s house off Birchwood Loop, hanging with family and friends and trying to get a fire started with soggy wood.

“It had been a wet year,” he recalled.

Getting a weekend bonfire going is something any Alaskan an relate to. Hala said he and his friends were “talking about girls” and enjoying an otherwise unremarkable evening. Hala tried a couple times to get a fire going, but with limited success.

“It starts to go, but then it goes out,” he said.

So he did something people do every day in Alaska — poured gas on the fire.

The gasoline ignited and rushed back to the can Hala was still holding. There was a “whoosh” that engulfed Hala and his cousin, who was standing next to him. The next thing Hala knew, he was on fire, rolling on the ground in a futile effort to get the flames to go out.

“That doesn’t work quite like they say it does,” he said.

Once the fire was out, Hala got in the shower and waited for help to arrive. It didn’t take long.

Rapid response

Within minutes, members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department were on the scene. Hala and his cousin were loaded into an ambulance, with Hala’s parents close behind. Severely burned, Hala needed to be intubated. He doesn’t remember much.

“I don’t think I was awake long enough for the shock to set in,” he said.

The last thing he remembers are the lights of downtown Anchorage shining through the ambulance windows. The he blacked out.

But Hala does remember how fast assistant chief Clifton Dalton and the rest of the CVFRD arrived at his dad’s house.

“I don’t think they could have gotten there any faster,” he said.

Hala said he thinks the department’s speedy response may well have saved him.

“That’s crazy fast.”

Road to recovery

Both Hala and his cousin were flown to Seattle for treatment, but it was Hala whose burns were far more severe. His face and chest were badly burned, and he was unrecognizable beaneath a mountain of bandages, gauze and cream.

Keebler was 30 weeks pregnant with her sixth child when the accident occurred. She said the ordeal of watching her oldest child fight for his life while she carried a baby was difficult.

“I have my moments,” she said.

Hala underwent skin grafts that used skin from his thigh to rebuild his chest and face and spent a full month in intensive care.

In the months that followed, Hala’s parents helped him heal, changing dressings and helping him deal with the emotional consequences of the accident. Hala still needs surgery on his neck to restore a full range of motion. He and his mother will travel to Seattle next month for more skin grafts, after which he should be done with surgery. The family has set up an online Gofundme.com account to help with expenses, which Keebler said continue to mount.

“A lot of credit cards were used,” she said.

Hala was about to start a new job when the accident happened. Those plans have since been put on hold, as have his studies at Eagle River High, where he would have been a senior this year. Now he’s studying to earn his GED. But his friends haven’t abandoned him — in fact, he said he’s grown closer to a lot of people since he was burned.

“My friends have been extremely supportive,” he said.

Learning experience

The National Gasoline Safety Project (www.stopgasfires.org) is an industry-funded group that works to prevent gasoline fires in the U.S. According to the NGSP, an estimated 1,500 children are injured or killed in gasoline fires each year.

The group (which is funded by the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association) partners with Shriners Hospitals and Safe Kids USA to spred the word about the dangers of using gasoline to start fires.

On its website, the group says “gasoline and fires never mix” and includes a video testimonial from Austin Bailiff, an Oklahoma teen who was severely burned in an incident similar to Hala’s.

Hala thinks he can have a similar impact on people. He said the first thing to remember is that the warnings on gas cans against using gas as a fire-starter are there for a very good reason.

“The new gas cans, they don’t lie to you,” he said.

Hala said that before he was injured, he didn’t really think something like his accident could happen to him. He now says he was wrong.

“It’s actually happened to people,” he said.

Hala wants to possibly start a YouTube channel where he shares his experiences through humor and perseverance.

“That’s something I thought about a lot in Seattle,” he said. “You have a lot of time to reflect on life.”

Once he returns from his final surgery in Seattle, Hala plans to resume his life and continue working to share his story with others. He’s excited to get back to fishing, riding four-wheelers and being a regular Alaska teen.

Hala still wears the jeans and boots he was wearing the night of the accident, and said he tries to look at the painful incident as a positive experience because he’s grown closer to family and gained an opportunity to help others.

“Going through it I have a lot of conflict in myself — if I could go back, would I experience it again? I think it would, just because I think it’s brought me a lot closer to a lot of my family,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t want anybody else to go through it.”

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