On the 29th of December 2020, Ben D’Ath’s life changed as fast as the spark of a lighter

At approximately 10.30pm, Ben was engulfed in flames after he triggered a gas explosion when lighting a candle in the bedroom of his 120-year-old rented New Plymouth cottage. The explosion could be seen and heard across city.

28 per cent of Ben’s body was burnt in the explosion. With help from his neighbour, he managed to escape and was admitted in critical condition to Taranaki Base Hospital.

The Taranaki Rescue Helicopter was tasked to transport Ben from Taranaki Base Hospital to Waikato for specialist treatment early in the morning of the 30th December, 2020. As with most burns patients, his injuries were severe.

“We met Ben at the Taranaki ED and after assessing his condition in consultation with Taranaki Hospital staff, it was decided that intubation for transport would be the best for his safe relocation,  for what was sure to be long term treatment and recovery,” says crewman Ed Garvey.

Ben was then flown to Waikato Hospital – a crucial 50-minute transfer in the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter – and put into an induced coma for what was expected to be six weeks of recovery.

We flew him to Waikato without incident and met with his parents who were waiting in ED for their sons arrival.

Remarkably, after just 10 days he was awake and was brought back to recover back in hospital in New Plymouth.

Ben’s recollection of the night is patchy, he told the Taranaki Daily News he remembers standing on the street after they escaped the burning home with his partner Leticia Nixon, thanks to the help of their downstairs neighbour Kerry Roach.

Another neighbour called them over and put him in a cold shower. When the paramedics arrived, they told Ben he would have to go to Waikato Hospital.

“That bit’s all a bit of a blur,” Ben recalls, he doesn’t remember waking up from the coma, but his first memory was of Leticia and one of his friends coming to visit. He can’t remember what was said or how he felt. He just knows they were there.

“I remember everything that happened, and that they took me to hospital,” he says. “But I don’t remember three weeks.”

His arms tell a story of survival. They are discoloured from severe burns and multiple skin graft surgeries at Waikato Hospital, one of which was six hours long.

Ben had his friends’ names tattooed on his thigh at 16, now, because of the grafts, those names are on his arms.

Those same arms were also the only way his mother Kathy could identify him as he was rushed out of the Rescue Helicopter, unconscious and on a ventilator to protect his airway. His face was swollen, his eyes squished shut, and it was tattoos on his bare arm that they recognised him by, she told the newspaper.

She had been in Kinloch, near Taupō, holidaying when they received a phone call from the police and arrived in Hamilton 20 minutes before the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter did with Ben.

“We were asked to identify him – that was pretty tough.”

But within two weeks he was recovering back at home in New Plymouth, he has been back to the house and looked around its charred remains.

“That was good for me, it was nice closure,” says Ben whose treatment is progressing well, but is not easy, “it’s pretty draining, it’s like a full-time job.”

As part of that recovery process Ben threw himself into researching as much detail as possible of the incident. Documenting the house, injuries, and medical process in a creative representation of the events that took place and the aftermath of the fire.

The result is a photo book titled 29.12.20 and documents his journey to recovery and is full of notes left in his patient diary, images taken of him when he was in a coma, as well as his own photos of what’s left of the home.

That he has been able to produce such a book is a relief for D’Ath. Treatment for his injuries involved multiple skin grafts on his arms, hands and back.

The grafts limited the movements he can execute with his hands, and he had been worried he would lose the dexterity necessary to operate cameras. The book is proof that he hasn’t.

All proceeds from sales of the book go to the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust.

An exhibition at Crystal Cylinder Gallery showcasing the photos Ben took through his ordeal was launched exactly six months after the blaze.