Barrett McKim, a 12-year-old homeschool student, is the second of five children born to Kyle and Caroline McKim. The family attends Community Bible Church in the tiny town of Highlands in the mountains of western North Carolina. Barrett has been a Memory Master in the Classical Conversations homeschooling curriculum for the last three years. He plays the piano and violin. He enjoys archery and fishing.
Most of all, Barrett has always had a passion for science. He likes working with different rocks, minerals and metals. “He has a metal detector that he will take everywhere,” said his mother. “We will go to the park, and he will go to the playground to play, and he brings his metal detector. While everyone else is on the swings, he’s metal detecting.”
Among his scientific pursuits, Barrett has performed many experiments at home after reading books or watching YouTube videos. On June 23, 2022, the soon-to-be teenager was burned over 50% of his body in a freak accident when his science experiment exploded. On that fateful day, as reported in the New York Post, Barrett was heating up fool’s gold after reading it can spark and change colors.
While the family is unsure exactly how the explosion happened, they do know that Barrett was using a Bunsen burner and had a bottle of isopropyl alcohol – both of which are commonly used for a wide range of chemistry experiments. Barrett’s father told local media, “It involved a Bunsen burner, and he was using a number of things. Alcohol was in the mix there, and somehow in that process, that got ignited and kinda blew up and back into his face.”
Further details on the experiment have not emerged, but Barrett’s mother told WRDW-TV that she heard a loud crack, like the sound of glass breaking, before her son came running out of the room with his whole body on fire. Luckily none of the other children were present. Mrs. McKim grabbed nearby pillows and started beating Barrett with them in an unsuccessful effort to put out the blaze.
Barrett’s parents say that their son is known for being responsible and cautious, as evidenced by the goggles he was wearing on the day of the explosion. Nonetheless, Barrett wasn’t wearing a lab coat but instead a shirt made of polyester fabric that acted as an accelerant, making matters worse.
“Fortunately, he was wearing protective glasses, which certainly helped,” said his dad. “But he was wearing a synthetic shirt, which ended up being a real contributor in the fire staying and trying to get that off, as it kind of melted away.”
“It would not go out; the fire would not go out,” Barrett’s mom recalled. “I tried to get him down on the floor to get him to roll, and it would not go out.”
“So, I just screamed out to God to give me some direction on what to do. We were right next to the kitchen, so I just put him on the floor next to the sink and I got the sprayer from the sink, and I just started spraying him down.”
According to Daily Mail, at this point Barrett was asking, “Mommy tell me the truth, am I going to die?”
Mrs. McKim sustained severe burns on both hands but managed to save her son’s life. She called 911 while spraying water on him until the paramedics arrived. Barrett was airlifted in a helicopter to the JMS Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Georgia.
The New York Post reported that Barrett McKim is battling burns mostly on his arms, hands, lower face, neck, front torso, and thighs. Twenty percent of the burns are third-degree and thirty percent are second-degree. Barrett was left unable to eat because he even suffered burns inside his mouth. Doctors placed a feeding tube up his nose.
The boy has already undergone ten surgeries involving skin grafts. “They ended up taking [skin] from the back of his thighs that were not burned, his entire back,” Mrs. McKim said. “Then, on the front of his thighs, he had had second-degree burns that had actually healed, and they took skin from the healed second-degree burns for his grafts.”
It is believed that Barrett’s face will be able to heal completely without grafts. “And that’s a real blessing,” his dad said. But he will still have a long road to recovery. “We’re probably looking at, from what we’re hearing, probably an 18-month to two-year road of some of the ongoing physical therapy,” said Mr. McKim.
Barrett McKim’s uncle, Stephen Schlautman, set up a GoFundMe page. “I have never been through a tragedy like this, but I can only imagine the cost and expense. I think everything that we can do would help,” Schlautman said. The page also serves as a blog that family members use to update the world on his recovery.
The McKim family has been taking things one day at a time. Mrs. McKim, who suffered severe burns to her hands and arms during her attempted rescue, recently gained movement back in her hands and is working on physical therapy just to be able to grip again.
Barrett is pushed to sit up and walk as much as possible to encourage blood flow to help his wounds heal faster, and so the skin doesn’t lose its elasticity. But as you can imagine, any movement also causes excruciating pain. “As horrible as this situation is, we have felt the prayers and those lifting Barrett up and certainly feel that the Lord is working in this for our good and for Barrett,” Mr. McKim told the New York Post.
After spending 51 days in the hospital, Barrett was discharged on August 13th. Even though he’s finally home, Barrett still needs to wear bandages, receive physical therapy, and be treated for pain. Hopefully this incident won’t crush his natural curiosity and he will continue exploring his scientific interests as soon as he’s able. We wish Barrett a full and complete recovery!
We also hope that other homeschoolers will learn from this, and double down on their safety precautions. Wear non-synthetic clothing, a protective lab coat that you can take off quickly, and safety goggles or a face shield. Keep highly combustible isopropyl alcohol far away from any open flames. Do this type of experiment in a well-ventilated area, since even vapors can be flammable. A nearby sink with spray hose is a great idea. Also, keep a fire extinguisher handy and know how to use it.