Ben Wooldridge doesn’t know what woke him up at 1:30 a.m. that November morning.
He does know it probably saved his life.
“I looked at my cell phone, then I went to turn the lights on and they didn’t come on,” recalled Wooldridge. “I knew something was wrong.”
Wooldridge has been campground caretaker at the Island County Fairgrounds and all-around cook, maintenance man and landscaper at Useless Bay Golf and Country Club since returning to his roots in the fall of 2015. He is a 1981 graduate of Langley High School and grew up with five sisters near Freeland.
“The living room wall was on fire. I got the fire extinguisher, shot it and then started looking for my cat,” Wooldridge said. “But then I saw a little flame and it poofed in my face.”
Curtains caught fire. Black, gassy-smelling smoke quickly filled the 26-foot motor home. Smoke itself seemed to catch on fire.
Bending low to the floor, Wooldridge kept feeling around for his 4-year-old cat named Oreo. But he couldn’t see her or hear her. Finally, he rammed the door with his shoulder and stumbled outside.
Neighbors stopped him from going back inside to rescue Oreo, who didn’t survive; they tried to calm him down. As sirens started wailing, a neighbor suggested Ben lie down on her couch, fearing he was in shock.
He tried. It almost made him scream.
“I don’t think I can lie down,” Wooldridge remembers telling her.
The neighbor looked at his back and gasped.
“I didn’t realize I was that burned,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything.”
By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, flames fully engulfed the motor home.
Deputy Chief Jon Beck of South Whidbey Fire/EMS had gotten to know Wooldridge over the years. He knew the ball of fire had been his friend’s home.
Wooldridge remembers Beck arriving at the scene, immediately looking for him.
“Jon looked me over, looked at my back and said, ‘I’m calling Lifeline,’” Wooldridge said.
As they waited for the rescue helicopter to arrive and transport Wooldridge to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the pain from multiple burns set in.
“Whidbey EMT gave me all the painkillers,” he said, “all the morphine they could, and it still hurt.”
Staff at Harborview’s Burn Center surrounded him, checking his head, his face, his arms and legs and the bright red skin on his back for the size and severity of burns.
“They were on all sides of me. The doctor told me they needed to shave my head, and asked me, do I mind? Then they said they needed to shave my beard, too,” he said. “I told them, ‘Now, you’re breaking my heart. I’ve had that beard since 1992.’”
The second-degree burns on his legs started healing within a week. His face and scalp also responded to wound treatment remarkably fast. And although his entire back had initially looked ravaged, Wooldridge escaped the added trauma of skin graft surgery to those third-degree burns.
After three days in the ICU, his daily regimen consisted of frequent washing and dressing of burns and debridement procedures, which scrap off dead skin.
On Nov. 28, 2018, three weeks after the devastating fire, doctors gave Wooldridge the go-ahead to go home.
Only he had no home.
Not yet. It wasn’t quite ready.
Family, friends and others all chipped in to help Wooldridge rebuild his home and life. A GoFundMe page started by his sister raised $9,000. A childhood friend called Wooldridge and told him he could have his 30-foot trailer, which also came with a new coffeemaker, grill, clothes and other items.
Additionally, Harborview Medical Center officials said they’d pay all his bills using charity care funds.
Wooldridge had been in between health insurance plans. He no longer qualified for the state’s Medicaid AppleCare because his income had gone up, but he couldn’t sign up for a new plan until Jan. 1.
“I heard from so many people and so many people helped out,” Wooldridge said. “I was shocked, completely overwhelmed by the kindness of community. Some people, I didn’t know who they were, but they remembered me.”
His sisters and nieces initially helped him out with daily skin care, including taking photos of his back which are emailed to his doctors for follow-up assessment.
“They tell me it will be one year before it heals completely,” Wooldridge said.
Wooldridge looks a bit different now but not by much — unless he takes off his shirt. His long, curly brown hair is gone and a couple of burn blisters remain on his face. His energy is still sapped and he’s gained weight from being inactive.
Instead of working 10 hours a day, Wooldridge says he’s putting in six to eight hours between his two jobs. At the fairgrounds, he works 14 hours a week for the Port of South Whidbey for pay, and he’s not charged camping fees.
Wooldridge admitted that even though doctors warned him to wear sunscreen under his clothes outside, he may have forgotten recently and it resulted in a bad rash.
Although he didn’t own much, it didn’t diminish the fact that he lost everything he did own, Wooldridge said. Photographs — the kind printed on actual paper — he misses, particularly the ones of his adult son, who now lives in Florida.
Friends have suggested he get another kitty, but it’s too soon. His eyes still get blurry when he talks about his best friend, Oreo.
“Really, that’s what she looked like, a double-stuffed Oreo when she was all curled up,” he said.
An electrical fire consumed everything that early morning in November, except Ben Wooldridge.
“I am extremely lucky,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have woken up, this wouldn’t be so good a story.”
“Most people get knocked out by the smoke and never wake up. I survived. There’s something else out there for me.”