EDMONTON — Wilf Michalycia wasn’t planning to go to work that afternoon. He was leaving for Las Vegas the next morning, but decided to do a quick check on a Fort Saskatchewan job site.
Wilf, his brother Wes, and their cousin Jason, were all plumbers. When they smelled gas in the basement of the partially finished house, they knew something wasn’t right.
“Then, ‘Boom!’” Wilf recalls. “I don’t know if I landed on the ground, but I got up and then everyone was screaming.”
The Feb. 21, 2013, explosion blew out the side of the house and shattered windows. The flames lasted a few minutes, but felt like an eternity to the men trapped inside.
“I didn’t think of really anything,” says Wes, “other than, ‘this could be it.’”
“When we were in that fire … [it was] almost like slow motion.”
All three men managed to climb a ladder out of the house, and were rushed to hospital. Wes, 50, suffered burns to 65 per cent of his body. Wilf, 46, was worse: he was 96-per-cent burned. And Jason, who was just learning to be a plumber, died the next day. He was 33.
Wilf and Wes were comatose in the University of Alberta Hospital for more than two months. During that time, surgeons used what remained of their healthy skin and muscle to repair the burnt tissue.
“Usually they give up with people that only have five per cent left, because they usually don’t survive,” Wilf says.
Twenty months later, the damage is still extensive: both men need leg braces to walk; Wes lost the use of his right arm; Wilf lost most of his fingers and is blind.
Wes and Wilf with their loved ones. Supplied, Michalycia family
Wes and Wilf with their loved ones.
Supplied, Michalycia family
But the disaster didn’t take away the Michalycia sense of humour.
“I’m part Ukrainian and I’m stubborn as a bull and that’s probably why I’m still here,” says Wilf with a smile. “I like to be a pain in the ass now.”
“I was going bald anyway, so it’s all good,” says Wes, pointing to his scarred, smooth head.
The brothers spent several months at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, learning to walk and to feed themselves all over again. Physical therapist Barb Furler says they entertained each other and everyone else in the therapy gym.
“They’d come down here and they’d be walking and every other patient would be egging them on and there’s jokes going on.
“It was always a bit of a circus when they were in here.”
Wilf plans to delve into disabled skiing.
“I used to ski and I wanna try again because — why not?”
“I was dealt this hand and I’m gonna make the best of it,” addd Wes. “You could always roll over and play dead, I guess. And that’s not me.”
The brothers visit new burn patients at the Glenrose regularly. It means a lot to them, says occupational therapist Dan Yeung, “for them to kind of go through that and be able to say to the next patient, ‘Hey, I made it.’”
“Here, we see a lot of tragedy. And occasionally we see heroes.”
Glenrose staff will honour Wilf and Wes with the Glenrose Award of Courage at a ceremony Nov. 5. The brothers say they are humbled, and will be thinking of their cousin, Jason.
“I always feel like it’s my fault because I dragged him into my work,” says Wilf. “And if he didn’t, he would have been at home, still safe.”