My name is Gwen and one of my life’s blessings was that of being the wife of a firefighter. The pride and passion for his thirty-four year career of active duty was a reflection of which I am today, and behind the scenes, was as much my career as it was for Lt. William ‘Bill’ Linski. Thirty-four years of revolving shift work, preparing lunches and ironing shirts (yes, we actually did this!), unfinished dinners, 3:00 a.m. alarms, the empty chair at special occasions, the stench of smoke embedded uniforms, tears and pain over the loss of precious lives, sirens and flashing lights, pacing, waiting and the worry that intensified with every leaping flame. Miraculously, all this vanishes as the night shift turns to day and the cries of “daddies home!” turns into exciting stories of how they ‘knocked that fire down’, or ‘never turned a wheel’. The kids loved the stories and would laugh when he would tell them how he and his team of brothers would turn into human icicles and had to be stacked like cords of wood on the ride back to the hall where they were hosed down with warm water to thaw them out (a prairie winter hazard). There was even a time while changing ambulance drivers on the side of the highway ended up with him being left behind….but that is another story.
Growing up with a firefighter dad was always an adventure. These were the kids who got to sit in the assortment of fire trucks and sound the horns, parading around in turnout gear and dad’s boots while visiting the hall. Stories, the pride and yes, even the passion continued to flow as it filled nine years of retirement from active duty.
However, there is one story that is told that is embedded deep within my soul. It is the story of a thirty-two-year-old firefighter with seven years service and his twenty-eight year-old wife. Following the birth of their first born, they experienced a miscarriage and a full term stillborn baby boy. On March 8th, 1972, their four-year-old son, finally got to hold his brand new baby sister. Tragically, only eight days later, on the 15th of March, unbeknown to them, a natural gas line broke below the street outside their home; the frozen ground filtering out the telltale odor. On that particular morning, while attempting to do a load of laundry, a spark from a light switch created a flash fire around the electrical panel and the floor joists above the washer, spreading the length of the basement. With the children safely secured, a call to 911, the mom, with the help of a friend put out the flashing fire. This action brought in the firefighters as well as the gas company of which had them puzzled but, left with little concern for their safety, as it appeared that no further action was needed; they would check again the following day. The residue from the extinguisher remained; perhaps this new mother overreacted!
Accepting an invitation for dinner, the family locked the doors and enjoyed a relaxing evening with friends. Returning home three hours later, this exhausted family went about the nightly routine of preparing for bed. Coming off night shift, the dad was soon fast asleep. Mom nursed the baby and then prior to turning in, chose to return to the living room and finish a cigarette. Upon striking the match the flame appeared to flare up, and then, without warning, the air exploded, turning the house into a fiery infernal….a living hell.
The children died from heat and smoke inhalation and both parents were severely burnt with extensive 2nd and 3rd degree burns. Months of hospitalization; physical therapy, treatments and endless follow-up appointments; not to mention the legal battles.
That tragic story was our story that began on March 16th, 1972. This was and always will be the creator of who I am today. The choice to give up and to be with our children would have been so easy. The choice to live took all the strength and courage that one could possess and it has taken a life time to ride through the ripple effects of that eventful day.
Out of the ashes, many blessings were bestowed upon us. One blessing was the gift of adoption of a beautiful baby girl and the ability to have yet one more child, a son. Our lives were richly blessed and the scars and the pain of that particular journey have softened but the memories are vivid when one chooses to revisit yesteryear.
They say that I was burnt and Bill was baked which resulted in a different depth of burns. I believe that 70% of my body was burnt with various degrees of 2nd and 3rd burns. My head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and legs. I was engulfed in the actually flames and was able to roll my way out of the house. Once the vapors of the gas burnt off then all went black seconds before the next explosion. Bill took the brunt of the heat and collapsed at the back landing. Our neighbour, attempting to enter the house only saw ‘something’ on the stairs, which in fact was Bill’s foot and managed to pull him to safety. I, in the meantime, was rolling in the snow, and then attempted to assist with saving my babies. Re-entering the explosive inferno was not humanly possible! Screaming for help to ‘save my babies’ and unable to do anything but watch the flames remains embedded in my soul.
In those days, much as it is today, debriding took place in the burn tanks; a torture chamber that no one wants to ever experience. Lathered in ointment and mummified in yards and yards of sterile gauze, donor sites, skin grafting and the healing process was excruciating. Once healed to a satisfactory degree we were sent home to the stares and whispers. Physiotherapy was limited and emotional support non-existent. Programs such as New Beginnings, The Future Is Mine and The Compassionate Friends (a self-help organization for bereaved parents) were yet to be born. Picking up the pieces; dealing with the trauma and our new identity and the expectation to ‘move on’ nearly destroyed us but we were survivors by choice.
It is with an aching heart that I write this profile. Occupational hazards accelerated impending health issues. Undiagnosed diabetes, COPD, renal failure, home dialysis and the ripple effect of these medical issues was ongoing. Diabetes raised its ugly head and then the amputations began and now the challenge of living as a double amputee.
On December 15th, 2007, Bill danced across the rainbows leaving us with a profound legacy of courage and Brotherhood. Escorted by his beloved fleet of emergency vehicles flanked by an honour guard of firefighters, he was laid to rest in the Municipal Cemetery in Brandon, MB on December 21st, 2007. He was only 4’8” in height when he died but he was one of the tallest men that I had ever met. It was an honour to have shared forty-three years of married life with him.
As this chapter of my life came to rest, another one opened filling my soul with wonderment and excitement of all the possibilities that lay ahead within the realms of my two greatest passions…The Compassionate Friends and The Future Is Mine Program! Coming full circle, first with the MB Burn Survivors in 2004 and upon moving to BC, becoming a member of the BCPFF New Beginnings program. Taking on the position as a BC rep in 2008 and my role with TCF became an emotional challenge. I was struggling with my ‘widow’ identity and as a choice had to be made, I chose to stay in my comfort zone with TCF; promising myself that one day I would return.
On December 12th, 2012 at 12:00 noon, I married my new best friend, David Dulmage of Nanaimo, BC. My second family, are now adults with successful careers and have given me two adorable grandchildren. David has been welcomed with open arms by the family and life is a treasured gift of love, light and remembrance. Coming full circle, I am thrilled to be back on board supporting burn survivors in whatever capacity needed. I have officially retired from TCF and so now, it is time to keep that promise.