Survivor of Deadly San Marcos Fire Shows Strength, Courage

The first thing Zachary Sutterfield noticed when he awoke before daybreak in his friends' apartment was the uncomfortable heat.

The San Antonio Express-News reports vivid colors danced outside the living room window. Orange and blue hues flickered, casting shadows inside.

The 20-year-old college student sprang from the couch where he'd been sleeping. He ran to the two bedrooms where his friends, Haley Michele Frizzell and David Angel Ortiz, were asleep. He remembers banging on their doors to wake them.

They yanked open the front door of their second-floor apartment and dashed out to an outdoor walkway. "We were surrounded by fire," Sutterfield said.

Frizzell ran one way; Ortiz ran the other. Sutterfield, wearing only pajama pants, was caught in the flames.

"Something in me told me to jump," he said.

He leapt from the balcony toward the building's center courtyard.

"It was pure fight or flight instinct. I had never felt that sort of primal fear, primal urge to run before," Sutterfield said.

As he fell to the ground, he suffered a severe blow to his head.

Sutterfield remembers bystanders using their own clothes and throwing gravel on him to smother the flames on his body.

Then he stumbled away from the building and walked to an ambulance as the inferno at Iconic Village Apartments in San Marcos raged out of control. He gave the medics his name and asked them to knock him out to stop the pain.

His world faded to black.

Sutterfield's next memory was Christmas. Five months had passed since the July 20 fire that killed five people. He was in a hospital bed in San Antonio at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center's intensive care unit, more than 200 miles from his home in San Angelo. He was surrounded by friends.

It was his first lucid moment since the fire. For weeks, he had been confused. He'd repeatedly asked his parents the same questions: Where am I? What happened? Why am I here?

Sutterfield had survived the deadliest fire in San Marcos' history. Among the dead were his friends, Frizzell, 19, of San Angelo, and Ortiz, 21, of Pasadena, both students at Texas State University.

Three other people on the second floor of the same building were also killed -- Dru Estes, 20, of San Antonio; Belinda Moats, 21, of Big Wells; and James Phillip Miranda, 23, of Mount Pleasant.

Investigators concluded the fire was intentionally set, and the victims' deaths were ruled homicides. Authorities haven't disclosed where and how the fire was ignited.

San Marcos Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said recently he is confident the case can be solved. His office is still investigating, along with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Sutterfield suffered the worst injuries of all the survivors. He had third-degree burns over 68 percent of his body -- his head, face, chest, back, arms, hands and feet.

He spent nearly 200 days in the hospital and underwent 23 surgeries.

Doctors had to amputate all the fingers and the thumb on his left hand because the fire had destroyed the tissue. He lost most of the digits on his right hand -- only part of his middle and ring fingers remained. His right ear had been deformed by the intense heat.

The head blow he suffered when he jumped caused a traumatic brain injury that impaired his memory and hampered his ability to retain information.

In recent weeks, his recall has gradually returned, though some of his memories of the fire are hazy. A month ago, he learned someone had intentionally started the fire.

"It's been a real physical and mental battle," Sutterfield said in a recent interview, his first since the fire. "On my good days, my parents were there. And on my bad (days), they were holding my hand, crying with me, telling me that it's going to be OK."

He was released from the hospital Feb. 1 and now lives with his parents in one of the Fisher House facilities at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston as he continues outpatient rehabilitation.

The family expects to remain in San Antonio for many months, perhaps another year.

Sutterfield, who is heavily bandaged, said he wouldn't have survived this long without his parents.

His mother, Deona Jo "DJ" Sutterfield, 45, has been at his side since the day of the fire. His father, Karl Sutterfield, 50, joins them whenever he doesn't have to be at work at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo. DJ remains on leave from her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Sutterfield's mother bathed him, took responsibility for his daily wound care, changed his bandages every night and cooked his meals. His parents fed him when he couldn't feed himself. They accompany him to all doctors' appointments and constantly encourage him.

"My mom put her life on hold, put her job on hold, just to take care of me every day," he said. "If I didn't have that ... I'd be a depressed man in the hospital still."

At first it was difficult for Sutterfield to lose his self-reliance.

"I can't do a lot of the things that I did before," he said. "My parents will be the first to tell you that I was always the type of person that picked myself up by my bootstraps, did it on my own.

"You have to be willing to accept help from your mother and your father. And that was probably one of the hardest things, because I felt cumbersome, like I was a burden to them."

The family has always been close, but their bond has grown much stronger since the fire.

Sutterfield and his parents frequently say "I love you" to each other. They listen closely and patiently to one another without interrupting. His mom and dad are quick to rub his neck or bring him a refreshment, though he often insists on fending for himself.

They joke and tease each other. Sutterfield has a mischievous sense of humor.

Recalling how he spoke politely to the ambulance crew at the fire, he said: "My mom always taught me to have manners."

His mom was quick with a retort. "Even when you've been burned on 68 percent of your body, I expect you to behave," she cracked. They all laughed.

In the early days of his recovery, Sutterfield's prognosis was poor.

For the first two months he was hospitalized, his parents were told his burned feet might need to be amputated. He later learned to walk again. His feet were so tender they would sometimes bleed.

At times, he battled infections, a common occurrence for burn patients.

He had to relearn how to feed himself. His eating utensils are attached to a cuff that wraps around his wrist.

Sutterfield recently reached another milestone when he put on a shirt his mother held up for him. He will soon learn to put on pants without help.

He loves to read and can turn the pages of a book by himself. He can send text messages on his phone. He recently enjoyed a game of chess with his father.

His family was elated when he used a pen to write a note for the first time since the fire. "Mom! I love you so much! You are my hero!" he wrote, drawing a heart and signing his name.

He composed the note with a writing utensil equipped with a plastic mold that fits around his hand. A pen slides through a hole in the center of the device.

"I thought I'd never write again," he said. "To put pen to pad and be able to write and have a journal again was cathartic."

Routine tasks pose significant challenges. The scarred skin on the back of his neck is very tight, so he can't lift his head all the way. He still can't fully extend his right arm. He's unable to completely close his eyes.

All of these hardships may require more surgeries, said Dr. Lee Cancio, a surgeon and director of the Army's burn center.

For a time, cadaver skin was temporarily placed on Sutterfield's body until he could undergo skin grafts, a procedure that involved removing healthy skin from his legs to replace the damaged tissue elsewhere on his body.

He often experiences intense itching because of his wounds.

Although it's not obvious, Sutterfield has been missing part of his skull since July due to the head injury. Surgeons removed it immediately after the fire to relieve pressure on his swelling brain.

He will go through another neurosurgery, perhaps as soon as March, to replace that missing bone.

"I hope it's going to be made of carbon fiber so I'm a little more light and aerodynamic," he quipped.

His right ear also will be surgically reconstructed at some point.

Sutterfield had to be closely monitored in the ICU for weeks not only because of his extensive burns, but also the head trauma, said nurse Brent Sabatino, one of the first people to see the injured young man after he arrived at the burn center by medical helicopter.

"I don't think we were aware of the head injury until we took him to the shower and started shaving" his head, Sabatino said. "There was definitely something abnormal in the back of his head. I thought it kind of felt like a bullet wound almost."

He initially did not expect Sutterfield to survive.

"I just know for a human being to make it through what he's been through, it has to take someone strong ... willing to do no matter what it takes," said Sabatino, the assistant civilian nurse officer in charge at the Army's outpatient burn clinic, where Sutterfield undergoes physical therapy five days a week.

The combination of widespread burns and severe head trauma is uncommon, Cancio said. Young patients like Sutterfield are resilient, he added.

"Based on that, I am very hopeful and confident in his ability to overcome these challenges," Cancio said. "We've seen it over and over again. It really is an interesting and inspiring phenomenon."

Sutterfield's physical therapy sessions are painful. During a recent workout, he grimaced and appeared near tears as a therapist gently bent his bandaged right wrist, then stretched and slowly lifted his bandaged left arm. During these difficult exercises, his father's cellular phone streams Childish Gambino and other rap music artists that Sutterfield prefers.

The session ended on a high note when Sutterfield performed a side shuffle exercise without difficulty, skipping briskly in a sideways motion and halting on command. As his father, several therapists and other burn patients cheered, he raised his arm in triumph.

Once Sutterfield reaches his limits in physical therapy, he will go to the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam, which provides rehabilitative care for U.S. troops gravely injured while serving their country.

His medical team has discussed equipping him with a prosthetic device that mimics a hand, "which would be pretty neat," he said.

The months that have passed since the fire have been emotionally tumultuous for Sutterfield.

There have been days when he's consumed by depression. Anger. Grief. Fear. Gratitude. Joy. Love.

There was the moment when he first looked in the bathroom mirror in his hospital room and saw a stranger's face.

"I looked at myself for probably five or six minutes, just confused and sad, because I didn't recognize myself," he recalled. "And I touched my face ... and I touched my neck. And I cried a little bit.

"The first 10 to 20 times that I saw myself, it was quite hard to fathom that's what I looked like . For a long time, I was just in a state of denial, like `I don't want this."'

Today he is more accepting of his scars.

"It's kind of gotten to the point where it's like, OK, this is who I am," Sutterfield said. "I still have a mother and a father and a brother who love me so much. I have a girlfriend that calls me and tells me every day that she still loves me. And I have friends that do the exact same.

"I still have the same silly sense of humor. It's changed how I look and it's changed what I am able to do to a certain extent. But it hasn't changed me."

There have been days when he blamed himself because he realized a different decision at any point before the fire could have altered his fate.

Sutterfield arrived in San Marcos 10 days before the catastrophe because he planned to transfer to Texas State from Angelo State University. He was full of hopes and dreams, with interests in speech, debate, theater, politics, books and poetry.

He intended to live that fall at Iconic Village with his best friend, Haley Frizzell's brother. Until he could move in, Sutterfield temporarily crashed on the couch at the apartment where Haley Frizzell and Ortiz lived, which was in the same building.

The apartments, which catered to students, weren't required to have fire sprinklers because they were built in 1970, before the city's current fire code.

"That's always going to kind of plague me, that thought process of `Well, what if I had chosen a different apartment? What if I had stayed in my hometown? What if I had this? What if I had that?"' Sutterfield said.

Then there's the guilt. Sutterfield doesn't understand why he survived while Frizzell and Ortiz did not.

"I definitely question, why me?" he said. "You know, why was I lucky enough to live? . I was nowhere near as gifted as they were."

Frizzell, a former classmate at San Angelo's Central High School and a friend for five years, was a theater major who had just completed her freshman year at Texas State. "I'd never met someone who was so gifted in the realm of theater and arts and being able to wrap their mind around a character and portray them so well," Sutterfield said.

"And David was the best musician I had ever met -- he could play the guitar like no one's business or the drums or anything," he said of the Texas State junior who was studying exercise sports science.

Sutterfield has also felt appreciation, love and a stronger faith in a higher power during his recovery.

He's been encouraged by more than 1,000 get well cards. Many are from strangers.

"This experience has definitely changed how I look at people because I didn't think that people would really give you the shirt off their back," Sutterfield said. "And that's all I've received."

Though he wasn't the "biggest believer" in a higher power previously, he said, "I definitely believe in one now. It's kind of hard not to."

Sutterfield will soon begin taking an online sociology course offered by Texas State. He plans to pursue a bachelor's degree online with hopes of becoming a high school English teacher. He wants to get married and have children.

Before his life changed, he had planned to follow up his teaching career by going to law school, practicing law for five years, then running for political office. Those goals will be "a little more difficult now," he said, but he would still like to achieve them.

He would also like to write more and perhaps become an author.

"This event hasn't completely stopped me," he said of the fire. "It's just hindered me. And I'll get over the hurdle like I got through every other hurdle in my life. There's nothing I can't do at this point."

He has no desire to return to San Marcos or attend classes on Texas State's campus.

"I'm kind of over the college experience," Sutterfield said. "I just want to go back to my hometown and see my girlfriend, see my brother, see my dog."

Sutterfield's mother hopes his ordeal doesn't dissuade him from reaching his goals. "I want him to be able to still have the dreams that he dreamed of," she said.

Frizzell's parents, Brian and Michele, visit Sutterfield and his parents often. Brian Frizzell, 48, of San Angelo, said he expects Sutterfield to do great things.

"He could real easily just be sitting there mad at the world and God with the hand that he got dealt," Brian Frizzell said. "But he seems to have a real positive outlook."

The Frizzells always hoped Sutterfield wouldn't remember the trauma he experienced that morning.

"I can't imagine actually going through it and then having to relive it through your memories and your dreams and your nightmares," Michele Frizzell, 45, said.

They are amazed at the fortitude Sutterfield's parents have shown.

"You don't give up -- you just keep going," Michele Frizzell said. "They definitely have displayed the tenacity of being strong for their child."

The Frizzells and the Ortizes found some peace in the fact that Haley, David and Zachary were together in those last moments. Haley's body was found just a few steps outside her apartment door, her parents said. Fire officials told them Haley and David quickly lost consciousness after fleeing the apartment.

"It must have been very scary," said David's mother, Gina Ortiz, 47, of Pasadena. "But it is strangely comforting to know that they were not alone, but rather looking out for each other to the end."

David's 1-year-old pit bull, Layla, was never found. "He often carried her over his shoulder like you might carry a small child," his mother recalled. "She must have been with him as they were leaving the apartment."

Sutterfield has hazy memories of his last night with Haley and David. They watched a couple of movies, but the titles escape him.

Some questions still weigh on him. Who would torch the apartment building? And for what reason?

"Was it to get back at someone?" Sutterfield asked. "Did your girlfriend break up with you? Was it someone who owed you money? . What would cause someone to take the lives of broke college students trying to better their lives? To take someone's child away from their parents?

"I would just say why? And did you get what you wanted?"

The answers remain elusive. But he knows he's beaten seemingly insurmountable odds -- surviving the fire, the surgeries, the skin grafts.

"Out of all the things that could have gone wrong, I lived," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us