Go ahead. Ask Cyndi Houston if she believes in angels. The answer will be a resounding “absolutely.” Houston’s 16-year-old son, Dakota Hanlin, suffered second- and third-degree burns on his arms, hands, back and legs when a fire erupted Dec. 4 in the house where the family was staying in Milford in east-central Illinois.
Go ahead. Ask Cyndi Houston if she believes in angels.
The answer will be a resounding “absolutely.”
Houston’s 16-year-old son, Dakota Hanlin, suffered second- and third-degree burns on his arms, hands, back and legs when a fire erupted Dec. 4 in the house where the family was staying in Milford in east-central Illinois.
With burns covering 30 percent of his body and lung damage, his recovery at one point was uncertain.
Even more uncertain until a few days ago was the recovery of 11-year-old Lexi Smith, who also lived in the house and suffered severe burns over 85 percent of her body when she opened her bedroom door to escape and fire flashed over her. She remains in the burn unit at Memorial Medical Center but is expected to recover.
Lexi and Dakota are friends, but she treats him more like a big brother she can tease, confide in and bake muffins for. It was perhaps that connection that caused Dakota to instantaneously leap onto Lexi’s burning body and try to put out the flames, then push her out her second-story bedroom window to safety when she froze up and refused to jump. He then followed out the window.
Dakota has been lauded as a hero, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I just want it to go away,” he said. “I just want to forget about it.”
Houston believes that if Dakota hadn’t been there that night, if he hadn’t fallen asleep watching movies on the floor in Lexi’s room, that she wouldn’t be here today.
“It breaks my heart that they both went through this. You never, ever think that something like this is going to happen to you until it does,” she said. “He’s my hero. I know he doesn’t feel that way about himself, but that’s the way we feel about him.”
Lexi had some special words for Dakota, too, spoken in a tiny, raspy voice from her hospital bed.
“She said, ‘You saved my life. I own you,’” Houston said with a laugh. “I think it’s supposed to be the other way around. She’s so sweet.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the state fire marshal’s office, said Milford Fire Chief Frank Hines. It took 45 minutes for firefighters to get the blaze under control, which does not count the time it took to put it completely out.
The blaze may have been caused by a faulty heat lamp on a reptile tank that contained a young snake. The tank sat in the second-floor hallway outside the bedrooms.
Dakota has a long road to recovery ahead of him. He is meeting with occupational and physical therapists and has regular doctor visits. His arms and back are red and blistered. The badly damaged skin on his right arm was grafted with skin from his leg, while his less seriously damaged skin on his left arm was grafted with pigskin in an effort to help his own skin heal underneath.
Lexi, a sixth-grader, has a longer recovery ahead and remains in a great deal of pain at the hospital.
Houston and her son, as well as others who lived in the Milford house, are staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Springfield, which Houston said has been a wonderful experience and eased a lot of their worries.
“This is the most amazing place, full of the kindest people,” she said of the Ronald McDonald House. “Don’t forget to put some money in the box at McDonald’s for the Ronald McDonald House. You just never know.”
Most of their belongings burned in the fire, including all the family’s Christmas gifts and clothing. Houston received some financial donations that enabled her to buy some loose-fitting pants and other clothing for Dakota. She also needs to buy him a coat and other gear to protect his skin from the elements.
They are not concerned about the lost Christmas gifts. They’re simply happy to have each other and intend to spend Christmas together at the hospital with Lexi.
“That’s just material stuff, but it makes me sad that they literally walked through hell and we don’t have anything to replace one single thing that they lost,” Houston said. “I’m good. Everybody is here.”
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at (217) 788-1530 or firstname.lastname@example.org.