When Austin Sigg’s life was hanging in the balance, he could think of only to call his wife, Emily.
“I needed to tell her I love her before I died,” he said.
And for reasons Emily still can’t explain, she answered her phone.
“I never answer my phone at work,” she said. “But when I saw it was from Austin, I did.”
Austin’s voice was faint. “I’m burned really bad,” he said. “And I love you.”
Emily called 911 and dashed to their rural home north of town.
Almost seven weeks later, Austin marvels at how “your life can change in a minute.”
“Work was going great, and then in less than a minute my body was engulfed in flames. I thought it was over for me.”
It all began the afternoon of Aug. 30, when Austin, age 35, and his brother Ethan, 24, were working on vehicles at Austin’s business, S5 Ag & Auto. The massive three-stall garage is attached to the family home, separated by a firewall. Austin and Emily and their three children, Elliot, 10, Cohen, 6 and Nellie, 5 moved into their new home in November 2021.
AUSTIN can recall the afternoon vividly.
He and his brother were working on separate vehicles when Ethan’s caught fire.
“He was taking the engine out and undid the fuel line,” with the fuel dripping into a pan below. “Then he went to the exhaust pipe and had to use a torch,” catching spilled fuel on fire.
“I’m not blaming Ethan,” he said. “It was a mistake.”
“When Ethan said ‘fire!” I initially thought it wasn’t a big deal and went back to work. Then the next time I turned around the flames were high.”
In the effort to douse the fire with a hose, water sprayed everywhere.
“You can put out a little gas fire with water, but not a big one. It just makes it spread,” he said.
Unfortunately, the garage lacked fire extinguishers. “Usually, I have four. But they had expired two months earlier, and I never got around to replacing them.”
“When the flames started getting high, I went over to help. I didn’t want my house to burn down so we let down the jacks on both sides of the car and started to push it out. It was just a little Suzuki, so it was no big deal. We were pushing out the car when my feet slipped on the wet floor, and I landed face down beside the car in the drain pan of fuel and splashed it out everywhere.”
When the pan was knocked over the spilled fuel caught fire. Austin estimates there was about a gallon of oil and gas in the pan.
Austin rolled out of the flames and Ethan quickly began patting out the engulfing flames.
“I was kicking and screaming, and he was using his bare hands to help me.”
Ethan received second-degree burns on his hands from aiding Austin.
Austin received 3rd degree burns — the most serious — on his right arm and his lower torso from about mid-thigh down and 2nd degree burns on his left arm. His left foot suffered burns as well as half of his face.
About 45% of his entire body was burned.
“I remember seeing my right sock was on fire. I took it off and flung it across the room. Today, you can see where it burned the concrete.”
“I think my right shoe had fallen off. Ethan reached and grabbed my left shoe off my foot. It took a lot of courage for Ethan to do that.”
Wherever there was clothing — he was wearing a cotton t-shirt and shorts, shoes and socks — he escaped injury. A hat protected his head. And where he was wearing a watch, the skin was undisturbed.
“I have this band of good skin there,” he said.
Though Emily thinks it’s morbid, Austin has held on to the clothing he wore that day. He holds up the Dickies brand shorts that are now just short of transparent. His shoes are a molten black glob. His shirt is more of a sheet from where the paramedics cut it off his body. Only the bill remains of his hat.
After six weeks at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s burn unit, Austin was released to come home where he continues daily occupational and physical therapy sessions at Allen County Regional Hospital with physical therapist Drew Mueller and occupational therapist Kailey Clark.
After having to relearn how to walk and use his arms since the accident, Austin has graduated to “range of motion” exercises.
“I still get stuck in positions,” he said. He’s also working on regaining his strength by doing simple gripping exercises.
“At the hospital in Kansas City I did this grip test and 30 lbs. is all I could do. Now I’m up to 50. Then my brother grabs ahold and it’s like 140 lbs. and he’s not even trying.”
Austin’s torso is swathed in bandages. His gait is stiff and slow. Picking up items remains a challenge because the nerve endings in his fingers are still damaged and extremely tender. The slightest pressure can tear the newly forming skin. After sitting for any length of time it’s a challenge to get up. Likewise, it’s a challenge to sit because the newly grafted skin is “tight.”
“I keep breaking the skin open behind my knees because it can’t seem to stretch far enough. It’ll just take time for the skin tissue to build up.”
And sleeping? “It’s a nightmare,” said Austin. “I can’t lay a leg on top of the other leg because that hurts. And I wear these boots that keep my feet pointed up because otherwise they want to point down.
“I can almost sleep on my back, but that’s where they’ve taken so many skin grafts and it itches like crazy.”
“That’s a good sign,” Emily says encouragingly. Austin sighs.
Emily changes his bandages every day — a two-hour process.
“My friends were like, ‘how’s your nurse,’ you know, kind of joking about her. And I’d reply, ‘she’s hot,’” said Austin.
The young couple have been married 11 years.
Emily is on leave from her “dream job,” of teaching art at Iola High School.
She recalls that afternoon as being surreal.
It began with the phone call.
“Austin usually doesn’t call me during the day and usually I don’t answer my phone when at work. Maybe it’s because it was toward the end of the day that I looked at my phone when it went off. I thought it was weird to be Austin, so I just happened to answer,” she said.
“He said, ‘I’m burned really bad. I need you to come. I love you.’”
“I called 911 and ran out of the school.”
Emily kept Austin on the line while driving the 14 miles home.
Fortuitously, Michael Burnett, Allen County EMS director, was just down the road from the Sigg’s home where he was haying a field, when he heard the 911 call over his radio.
“He took one look at me and called for the helicopters,” Austin said. One for Ethan and another for Austin.
Once Emily arrived, she stayed by Austin, whose breathing had become shallow and quickened.
“I tried to keep calm and to take deep breaths. The panic was starting to take hold.
The two credit Levi Ballou of the Iola Fire Department for his response to the situation.
“He knew exactly what to do,” Emily said, including administering pain medications and intubating Austin once loaded in the ambulance.
With the inside of Austin’s mouth burned, it wasn’t known at the time whether his airways were as well. Had they swelled, it would have been too late to aid his breathing.
The morning after Austin arrived at KU Med the intubation was removed.
“They lowered the oxygen and the sedation to see how he would do. Immediately, he began breathing on his own with no problems,” Emily said. Altogether, he was on oxygen for less than 24 hours.
Taking care of Austin’s burns has been time consuming and painful.
The first 12 days in the hospital, Austin was heavily sedated and remembers nothing.
Even in that state, he underwent physical therapy.
“It began on Day 3,” Emily recalls. “They don’t take days off in PT. It was grueling for Austin, but I trusted what they said.”
After 17 years in the National Guard, Austin said he viewed his recovery as a work order.
“I was like, give me a checklist, what do I have to accomplish to get home to be with my kids.”
To treat his legs, a procedure called an escharotomy was done where long strips of flesh were removed to relieve the pressure from the swelling.
Doctors also placed the skin from cadavers over where his dead skin had been removed as part of the healing process.
“They want to make sure your body will accept the skin because they don’t want to waste your own skin if it’s going to be immediately rejected,” explained Austin. “They stapled it on in patches. I have pictures, but you probably don’t want to look,” he teased.
Austin underwent four skin graft surgeries where they removed skin from his upper torso and placed it on his legs and arms.
One surgery to remove skin from his midsection to place on his left leg and right arm required eight hours.
“There’s this thin line between where my skin was burned and where it’s been grafted,” Austin said. “They figure with 45% percent of my body burned, another 45% of my skin was needed for grafting.”
The couple shake their heads at the miracles of medicine.
“A 1-inch patch of skin can be made to cover a 3- or 4-inch square,” Emily said.
The worst part in Austin’s regimen was what is referred to as “tanking,” which is a surgical table that resembles a pool table that has water pumping through the gutters. The procedure required scrubbing Austin’s wounds to remove the dead skin to prevent infection.
Because it was so painful, Austin was sedated for the procedure that occurred every other day.
“The worst was on my hands,” he said. Austin removes a protective glove and explains, “there were these little holes in my hands that captured germs and stuff. They would take my hand and just scrub and scrub, including under my cuticles. On one hand, she’d spend 30 minutes.”
Were the nurses not so nice, Austin might be bitter about the experience. Instead, he only has words of praise for their dedication.
Emily, too, found pillars of strength.
A woman whose husband had been badly burned was also in the burn unit with Emily and Austin.
“He had been burned several weeks before Austin, so she could help prepare me for what to expect,” Emily said.
“She became a mother to me. If she saw me crying, she’d come give me a hug and sit with me. She helped me through a lot because she understood what I was going through.”
The nerves in his hands are slowly repairing. With one glove off, Austin places his hand on the countertop and grimaces.
“It’s almost unbearably cold,” he said.
On his right hand, his fingertips are exposed through a glove. On his left, only two — his thumb and his index finger — are exposed.
“I’m starting to get some sensation there,” he said.
“In my legs, it’s strange because I can’t really tell if they’re cold or hot.”
That’s because third-degree burns go deep, killing the nerve endings even further below the surface.
A danger in the shower is turning the water too hot and burning his skin or on the opposite end of the spectrum getting too cold and getting hypothermia.
Austin spent five-plus weeks in the burn unit at KU Med followed by one week in an inpatient rehabilitation unit. Forty-six days.
“They said you could expect to stay one day for every percentage of burn,” said Emily.
AUSTIN and Emily think of all the blessings they’ve encountered from the ordeal.
A cousin’s husband who works as a respiratory therapist at KU Medical Center was there to greet Austin when his medical transport landed.
Friends and family members were a constant source of support.
“In my six weeks at the hospital, I spent only one night alone,” he said.
He and Emily decided she would return home to be with the children two nights a week. In her absence, others took her place.
Emily is grateful to Scott Carson, Iola High School principal.
“He was just awesome, asking me if there was anything he could do to help me. I told him to just find a really good sub for me. And he did. Claire Moran is now teaching my classes, and she is amazing,” Emily said.
The couple noted the help of their parents.
Angie and Mark Larson, Emily’s parents, frequently kept their grandchildren overnight and made several trips to Kansas City.
Austin’s parents, Carla and Jim Metcalf and Dan and Jan Sigg also visited them in Kansas City several times.
Austin credits Mason and Chase Sigg of Sigg Tire in rescuing his business. “They’re taking care of my service calls and keeping my customers happy.”
Emily’s sister, Kelsey Johnson, and her husband Lake, often took care of Emily and Austin’s children.
Austin notes the help of Dakota Milner “who came by our place every single day just to check things out.”
“Jake Mueller has kept our lawn mowed. Nick Mueller came over that day and made sure all the vehicles were locked up and put away.”
“Jake and Nick, Corey Emerson, and Mason and Chase visited me several times in KC,” Austin said.
Emily recalled how Maegan Emerson “came in and cleaned my whole house one day, including my refrigerator and all our laundry.”
Rosalyn Lillis, Kelly Sigg’s daughter who lives close to the KC hospital, “was a huge support, bringing us meals, washing our clothes and checking in a lot,” said Emily.
Jared Ellis visiting and offering lots of spiritual advice to Emily “really got me through the hard times,” she said.
And Becky Carlson and Mason Sigg are organizing Sunday’s golf tournament and raffle at the Allen County Country Club to help benefit Austin and Emily.
Austin realizes a full recovery will take time.
“My body is still trying to heal itself and then it’s going to start getting stronger,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to returning to work and the Guard, though it’s going to be awhile before I can do 100 push-ups.”
Coming home has been a piece of heaven.
“I walked out this morning and yelled to Emily to come join me. ‘Come smell the fall,’ I told her.”
And she did.