Safety and OSHA News

30 years later, man recalls being burned on 90% of body

Here’s a cautionary story for workers. John Capanna had a bright future at the age of 20. He was already a crew chief for his employer — a good job. Then, a workplace explosion burned over 90% of his body.

Capanna worked for a contractor that had been hired by an oil refinery in Paulsboro, NJ.

Oct. 5, 1979 was his last day on the job there. He’d been concerned about some other injuries that had occurred at the refinery.

The final job: Remove an old water pump. The bolts that held the pump in place were so rusted they couldn’t be moved. So Capanna got the OK to use an acetylene torch to burn the bolts off.

He was burning off the last bolt when there was an explosion and flash fire.

Turns out, the pump wasn’t for water, it was for crude oil. Capanna was covered in crude oil, and he burst into flames.

The flash blinded him, but he managed to get out of the building that housed the pump. His flesh was engulfed in flames, and he fell.

Two other workers patted the flames out.

Capanna continued to burn for hours because the hot crude oil had stuck to him.

Through all this, he never lost consciousness. He felt everything, and burns are some of the most excruciating injuries because they leave nerves damaged and exposed.

As part of his treatment, his eyes were sewn shut for three months so his eyelids would not shrink while awaiting a skin graft. A pair of glasses worn during the blast saved Capanna’s sight.

In 1979, psychological treatment for severe burn patients was different than today. There were no mirrors anywhere in his hospital room where he could see himself. Even spoons were plastic so he couldn’t see his reflection in them.

One day while he was away from his room working with a physical therapist, Capanna slipped into a public restroom to look in the mirror.

The site of his own face made him throw up. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw in the mirror: missing ears, lips and nose.

“I was devastated,” Capanna said.

Over the course of 20 years, Capanna had 75 surgeries to close his skin and reconstruct his nose, ears and lips.

But reconstructive surgery has its limitations. Children would look at him and say, “Look mommy, a monster.” Adults would turn away from him.

Today, Capanna works with the Phoenix Society, a national organization that works with people who suffer burn injuries.

He recently told his story to The Pocono Record. It’s a story that’s sure to have an impact on workers.

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