Archive for Friday, May 19, 2006

Fire victim focuses on future as graduation from KU nears

May 19, 2006

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Leigh McHatton attributes it to stubbornness.

Months after escaping death in the Boardwalk Apartments blaze, the Kansas University student returned to school this semester to finish what she'd started. She graduates this weekend.

"I'm a very, very stubborn person," she said. "I did not want someone else's actions to keep me from what I was doing."

The 25-year-old suffered burns to her hands, feet and face in the Oct. 7 fire in the 500 block of Fireside Drive that killed three people and injured 20.

Jason A. Rose, the man charged with setting the fire, is awaiting a Sept. 18 trial.

McHatton is expected to testify at the trial. But for now, she's not focused on Rose.

"I can't control what's happened, and I can't control what's going to happen," she said.

Instead, McHatton is thinking about her own future. She has plans to move to Denver and continue her art career. She's ready for a fresh start in a new place.


Kansas University student Leigh McHatton will celebrate her graduation on Sunday. McHatton, shown finishing a final printmaking project Thursday at KU, was burned in the Oct. 7 fire at Boardwalk Apartments and still has nightmares about the blaze.

Kansas University student Leigh McHatton will celebrate her graduation on Sunday. McHatton, shown finishing a final printmaking project Thursday at KU, was burned in the Oct. 7 fire at Boardwalk Apartments and still has nightmares about the blaze.

It's not easy.

"In a way, you want to move on and you want to continue," she said. "But, on the other hand, it was something that was fairly significant that happened to me and happened to a lot of people. I've just been trying to find the balance, I guess, between moving on but still working through what's happened to me."

Before the fire, McHatton had been on track to graduate in December. An artist, she's majoring in expanded media. She has worked with painting and drawing, sculpture, photography, and performance and video arts.

After months of recuperation at home in Winona, in western Kansas, McHatton returned to KU in February. She picked up where she left off, finishing the courses she'd been working on before the fire.

When she first came back, her scarred feet were too sensitive for long walks or extensive standing. Her hands - pinkish and scarred - also needed more time to improve. Her healing face is sensitive to the sun.

"She tries to pretend : but I can see that she's struggling," said So Yeon Park, assistant professor in expanded media who has worked closely with McHatton.

Commencement time

Kansas University's commencement will begin at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Memorial Stadium. For a full schedule of events, see www.commencement.ku.edu.

In a way, McHatton feels lucky. Others lost loved ones in the fire.

"The pain that I go through is absolutely nothing compared to their pain," she said.

McHatton has battled guilt. She's wondered whether she could have saved her two cats who died in the fire. She's wondered whether she should have jumped from her window. Maybe the broken bones would have been better than the burns. And she's wondered what she could have done to help other people.

She believes she made mistakes and she's learned from them. Her old apartment was on the second floor. She now lives on the first floor and she knows her exit routes. She knows where her fire extinguisher is and how to use it. Her new apartment has a sprinkler system.


Leigh McHatton still has visible scars on her hands and feet from burns she suffered in the Boardwalk Apartments fire in October. McHatton will graduate from Kansas University on Sunday.

Leigh McHatton still has visible scars on her hands and feet from burns she suffered in the Boardwalk Apartments fire in October. McHatton will graduate from Kansas University on Sunday.

And she's trying to find ways to communicate what's happened to her through art, with works that touch on themes of home, safety and disfigurement.

But the memories still haunt her. McHatton often is too anxious to sleep at night. When she does drift off, she has nightmares, often involving fire: There is danger; McHatton is trying to escape and help others escape.

"It really has been hard for her," said John Hachmeister, associate professor of art. "It's really impressive and inspiring to see how she keeps going."

McHatton held up her hands recently, showing the shriveled, delicate skin and fingers. Optimistically, her scars will be unnoticeable in five years, she said. But there's no doubt that she's changed forever.

"I've really taken ownership of what's happened to me," she said. "It's really a part of who I am now."

Comments

noodle 9 years, 1 month ago

I'm impressed at your positive attitude! Good luck to you!

craigers 9 years, 1 month ago

No doubt noodle. If only more people would be this determined and press on. She is an inspiration.

james bush 9 years, 1 month ago

What a woman! Thanks for telling her story. It is inspirational.

Sigmund 9 years, 1 month ago

I have to add a third voice to the above. Leigh's maturity, focus, and persistance are astonishing. Has it been a hard road for her? No doubt. Sadly, these qualities rarely develop in people who do not face hardships in their life. But her friends, family and community live richer lives and in a better world because she is a part of it.

KSChick1 9 years, 1 month ago

Sorry about the fire. Am glad you could still live your life and get your degree finished. You will be even stronger the more you heal inside and out. Good luck to you in the future!

limehall 9 years, 1 month ago

Thank you for posting an update on at least one of the victims. It's good to hear she is moving onward and upward with her life. Best of luck to her.

Linda Aikins 9 years, 1 month ago

Great story. Congratulations Leigh. I hope the nightmares end for you very soon.

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