HIGH POINT, N.C. — Frank Hensley was an ordinary fourth grader growing up in Surry County, when his life suddenly changed.
Shortly after lunch on Feb. 22, 1957, Flat Rock Elementary caught on fire.
Two people died in the school fire and Hensley and five other students were critically burned.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Hensley said. “That building went from being a complete building at 1:30, to at 1:50, it was on the ground. There was nothing left of it.”
The cause of the fire has never officially been determined. Hensley said the school had a play that morning, and the fire likely started when one of the floor lights on the stage burst and caught the big velvet curtains on fire.
Hensley was burned over 70 percent of his body and spent the next eight months recovering in Wake Forest Baptist’s Burn Unit.
But despite everything he’d been through, Hensley never talked about what happened to him.
“During my era as a child, the way we dealt with issues– and not just my family, the whole community– was suck it up and go on. If you’re hurt, suck it up,” Hensley said. “That’s how we dealt with things and that’s how I learned to deal with my burns.”
And life did go on for Hensley.
He finished school, got married and helped raise a family. It wasn’t until some 40 years later when, as a favor, Hensley visited the Burn Unit at UNC-Chapel Hill that he realized physically he may have healed, but not emotionally.
“We didn’t have any way to deal with those kinds of things,” Hensley said. “We had to make a lot of mistakes, a lot of hurt, a lot of emotion.”
That’s when Hensley and the other survivors of the fire at Flat Rock Elementary organized a community forum they called, “A Night of Remembrance.” Some 200 people showed up to share their stories of how the fire impacted them and Hensley describes what happened next as nothing short of amazing: people were healing.
That experience gave Hensley, an Associate Pastor in High Point, and his wife Linda, the motivation to create Victim2Victor, a support group for burn survivors and their families that meets once a month in Winston-Salem.
Tim Perdue was burned over 40 percent of his body in August 2007, while working as a mechanic at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro.
Perdue spent eight weeks at Wake Forest Baptist’s Burn Unit and started attending Victim2Victor with his family as soon as he was well enough.
“You always think you’re going through something by yourself but then you find out you’re not,” Perdue said. “In the support group, you’ll find out someone has gone through the same thing and it helps just to talk about it.”
Hensley spends most Fridays visiting burn survivors and their families at the Burn Unit at Wake Forest Baptist. He shares with them a message of hope, honesty and encouragement.
“When you get out of the hospital and you have your last surgery, that’s when it starts. That’s when recovery starts.” Hensley said.
For more information about Victim2Victor, visit burnsupportnc.net or call (336) 883-2706.