Forged by fire: Twisp River Fire survivor to summit Mount Rainier

ORTING, Wash. -- Four years after the Twisp River fire nearly took his life, the sole survivor from his fire engine is living for the firefighter brothers he lost, reaching new heights along the way.

Tragedy struck on August 19, 2015, when Engine 642 crashed down a ravine while the men inside tried to escape the fire, which had abruptly switched directions, blocking their escape route with bright flames.

"It was either die right there or or die trying to run through that fire," said Daniel Lyon, the lone survivor. "And I made the decision to get out of that fire engine."

Lyon's life is defined by the steps he takes: The steps out of the fire engine and into the flames, where he burned 70 percent of his body running to safety; and the steps he's taken the past four years in recovery.

With every step, he carries the memories of the three comrades who died, Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski.

"I remember I turned around to look behind me and I saw a wall of flames and I didn't see Rick, Tom or Andrew come through that wall of flame," Lyon recalled. "That was the hardest part right there."

Grappling with survivor's guilt, surviving itself was an uphill climb. With each step, he pushed through excruciating pain.

In the beginning, just walking from his hospital room to therapy was almost too painful to bear.

"I'd beg and plead for them not to make me walk into the hall because it hurt so bad," he said. "I noticed that all the rooms I was walking past had wheelchairs and mine was the only room that didn't."

He said the nurse told him he had to walk, even when he begged to use a wheelchair like everyone else down that hallway. He told her it was completely unfair. That's when she said something that forever changed his mindset.

"She said, 'Daniel, you have to realize that these people have wheelchairs because some of them are probably never going to walk again.' And that was the changing point in my recovery. I don't think I ever made a complaint at Harbor View [Medical Center] after that day."

Months after the fire, the day he was released from Harbor View, he and his family held a press conference. At it, he said, "I can't climb mountains right now but right now I can climb hills."

Now, four years later, he actually is climbing mountains. And he's set his sights on the highest peak in the state.

"Mount Rainier is a way to conquer Mother Nature again and say, 'You know what, you may have burned me but I'm not backing down,'" he said.

Forged in the fire, for months Lyon trained to summit Mount Rainier on the hardest day of his life, August 19, the day the fire took his friends.

"I feel like, if I can get to the top of Mount Rainier, that's going to be the closest I can physically get to my buddies up there now."

It's been a summit years in the making, a dream he's had to honor his brothers. But for all of his steps forward through recovery, a day before the climb he was forced to take a step back when the climb leader called him to postpone the trip. 

Lyon said the leader has had concerns about whether his hands, fingers partially amputated from the burns, could hold on to an ice axe in the cold. Leading up to the climb, some members backed out, adding to worry there might not be enough people to help.

"This isn’t going to stop me," he said, determined. "This is just gonna give me that much more time to train, that much more time to be prepared."

A man who's faced much fiercer battles, Lyon is determined to keep climbing as he treks up Pinnacle Peak on a Saturday afternoon, the day he was supposed to be leaving Paradise for Camp Muir.

"Almost exactly four years ago, I was clinging on to my life and I was basically at death’s doorstep, and here I am four years later climbing these hills and enjoying life again," he said while huffing up the trail.

At the top of the peak, he lets out a, "Woo!"

"Another one down," he said, hands in the air.

On Monday, the 4-year mark of the fire that nearly took his life, Lyon got a call that transformed his view. After all of the disappointment of his trip being canceled, a professional guide group is squeezing him in on an expedition up Mount Rainier. He leaves Tuesday.

"If I can reach the summit, it's going to be an incredible feeling," he said. "At the end of the day, it's more about the journey than it is actually getting to the summit."

One step, one breath and one day at a time, Lyon continues to conquer life's mountains.

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