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A Survivor Moves On

Two years after suffering third-degree burns fighting Malibu brush fire, Bill Jensen ends 29 years with Glendale department among friends and family

October 23, 1998|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — Oct. 22, 1998, was a good day for fireman Bill Jensen.

On Thursday he ended 29 years of service to the Glendale Fire Department with a retirement party at Fire Station 21. Friends and family drank punch, ate cake and chided themselves for ever doubting he would make it.

Oct. 22, 1996, was a bad day for fireman Bill Jensen.

While battling the Malibu brush fire that day, Jensen and three other firefighters were badly burned. With third-degree burns on 73% of his body, Jensen suffered the gravest injuries.

For many victims, severe burns on a quarter of their body can be fatal. Just about everyone who saw Jensen's flame-tortured skin was sure he would die. But 111 blood transfusions, 28 operations and two years later, Jensen, 54, is still a mountain of a man who now keeps a furious schedule speaking on behalf of burn victims.

When asked to describe their friend, firefighters at the retirement party kept using words like "strength" and "will."

"His strength is legendary around here," said Jensen's boss, Fire Chief Richard Hinz. "He had this fun little habit of grabbing you by the ankles and shaking the change out. . . . He was a very, very powerful guy. What surprised all of us was his inner strength. We really did not think he was going to survive."

Jensen and another firefighter at the Thursday party, Scott French, were manning fire hoses next to a hillside home threatened by flames slowly climbing an embankment on a narrow side street off Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Suddenly, the wind shifted. Jensen and French ran, but not fast enough to escape the flames.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't have help from upstairs," French said. "Now, we both take life as it comes. We take things day by day. And this is a darn good day."

Helena San Marco remembers the first day she saw Bill Jensen. She was his receiving nurse at the Grossman Burn Center at the Sherman Oaks Hospital and Medical Center when paramedics rolled him off the helicopter ambulance.

He was unconscious. His face was charred. His bones showed through the burned flesh of his left hand. His fire-scarred lungs were being opened and closed by a respirator.

"Truthfully, I didn't think he was going to make it with such massive burns," San Marco said.

But she credits Jensen's family, who literally lived at the hospital for weeks at a time in a trailer loaned to them by a movie studio, for helping him recover.

Even Sue Jensen, 54, who knew her husband best, was surprised by the depth of his fortitude. Especially on the day he "crashed," a phase most serious burn victims go through when the body's organs become flooded with toxins and begin to fail. It was a weekend a few days after the accident.

"It took us by surprise," she said. "His whole body was infected, his blood pressure started falling. I was yelling at him, 'Don't leave me alone!' The nurses asked me to leave.

"His kidneys stopped working. His body was just shutting down."

About midnight his heart found its rhythm, his organs resumed their functions, and Sue Jensen never doubted her husband again.

"I didn't know what condition he would be in when we got him out," she said. "But I didn't think he would give up."

Bill Jensen says his wife is right.

He may have retired from firefighting, and his left hand still needs more surgery, but he is still working. In the past year he has befriended Elizabeth Dole, head of the American Red Cross, and has been traveling around the country speaking to burn victims and raising awareness at schools in the region.

"There's so much to be done in the world, so many children and burn survivors that need help. My family and I received a thousand prayers from people when I got burned--now we're paying the world back."

Two years after suffering third-degree burns fighting Malibu brush fire, Bill Jensen ends 29 years with Glendale department among friends, family.

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