BLUFFTON – Piercen Harnish's dad heard the scream from a few hundred yards away and knew something was wrong. His mom looked out the window and saw her son on fire.
This story is well on its way to a happy ending now. Harnish is healing from his deep second-degree burns and his football career remains relatively on track heading toward his junior year at Norwell High School.
But it's a scary and cautionary tale about how quickly things can change with one wrong decision.
“You know how they teach you to stop, drop and roll when you're little?” Harnish said. “You never think you're going to use it. No one thinks they're going to be on fire.”
Harnish, 17, an all-conference linebacker and quarterback whose older brother Chandler plays for the Indianapolis Colts, is a country kid. He's worked outdoors his whole life, raising animals and sweet corn, always on the go. He's handled burn piles of trash and brush plenty of times. On this day, May 18, he was helping the family get ready for his sister Carlee's graduation party.
The fire wouldn't get going and Harnish was out of the usual diesel fuel he often used to give it a jump start. He picked up a gas can.
“I started pouring gas on it, which was my fault completely,” Harnish said. “It was real calm, and after I got done pouring it, I lifted the container, the fumes kicked back on me and about a 10-foot flame drilled me in the face.”
Harnish remembered to stop, drop and roll. With the flames out, he ran across the yard and jumped into the family's pond.
“That was the fastest 40 I've ever run,” he said.
Piercen's father, Ron, jokes now about how he wished college recruiters had been timing Piercen then. In truth, Ron ran one of his fastest 40s to reach his son.
If Piercen hadn't stopped to put the flames out before heading for the water, the damage to his skin would have been much worse. It could have been life-threatening, his parents said.
His parents reached him as he came out of the pond. “He kept saying, 'How bad is it?' ” his mother, Lee Ann, said. As is her nature, she kept assuring him he would be fine, they would get him to the hospital and the doctors would take care of him. That was no small act of calmness, considering she had seen her son in flames a minute earlier.
Lee Ann Harnish drove Piercen from their rural Bluffton home to Bluffton Regional Hospital, trying to keep him from making things worse.
“It was my fault; I could call myself an idiot,” Piercen said. “I about punched a window in the van, I was so mad. My mom said, 'Don't bust your hand or you'll need surgery on that.' I just kept pounding my fist into the dash, I was so mad I had done that.”
Piercen was quickly transferred to the St. Joseph Hospital burn unit in Fort Wayne. He spent 20 hours in the hospital. His injuries were treatable, but excruciating. He had suffered burns on 10 percent of his body, including his chest, arms and face.
“They asked me to rate the pain from 1 to 10,” he said. “I said, 'Oh, this is a 10.' ”
Once it became clear his life wasn't in danger, everyone's thoughts turned to football. This is a football family, where everyone loves the game. Chandler is the most well known because of the Colts, but older brother Mitch played college football, too.
Piercen had planned on attending a number of football camps this summer, trying to get in front of potential college recruiters.
“It was definitely a curveball, to say the least,” said Chandler, who was home from Indianapolis that weekend. “Once I knew his health wasn't in dire danger, I was wondering about football. This is a big recruiting time in his career.”
It'll be a tricky maneuver, to a degree. Because of the burns, Piercen must avoid the sun, with hats and substantial sun screen in times when he is outside. If he follows those instructions, he won't have scars or the different pigmentation of the burns a year from now, doctors told him.
He expects to play this fall, but will need a dark visor and long sleeves. Some pain tolerance could be needed, too.
“They said the first couple times I strap on the pads, it's not going to feel good,” Piercen said.
Hundreds of family and friends came around in support of Piercen as he has recovered the past couple weeks. Colts coach Chuck Pagano was among those who sent get-well wishes.
Harnish also missed the track-and-field regional because of his accident. He would have been in the 100-meter dash, 400-meter relay and shot put. That was disappointing, but football is his first love, and the one he briefly thought was in jeopardy.
“I told him that day, 'You're still breathing, walking, talking, seeing,' ” Chandler said. “I said, 'Piercen, count your blessings. You'll still be able to do everything you want to do in time.' ”
Piercen will be back to work on the football field and off it. He snuck in a weight-lifting session this week. Don't tell his doctors.
He won't pour gas on a fire again.
“They say your memory is triggered by smell,” Piercen said. “I was cooking chicken on the grill the other day. Every time I opened it, the grill sent off heat and it sent me back there. I guess I'll have that the rest of my life.”