For the past 11 years, fire has been Joe Kinan‘s constant companion.
The most severely injured of the 200-plus people who were burned in the fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, on Feb. 20, 2003, Kinan not only had to fight his way back from injuries that should have killed him, but he also developed an almost paralyzing fear of fire.
“I can be around it for a little while, but eventually my inner self takes over and I have to walk away from it,” says Kinan, 45, who now lives in Lakeville, Massachusetts, with his fiancée, fellow burn survivor Carrie Pratt, and their 6-month-old daughter, Hadley.
“I try to look at it and face it but it’s tough,” he tells PEOPLE. “Even if it’s just a candle with a one-inch flame, it’s like the size of a tree to me.”
One hundred people died in the blaze that started after pyrotechnics used by Great White, the hard rock band playing that night, lit the curtains behind the stage on fire.
Kinan had third- and fourth-degree burns on 40 percent of his body and a scorched scalp. The damage forced him to lose all his fingers and toes, plus his left eye.
Yet Kinan refuses to feel sorry for himself.
He calls May 10, 2003 – the day he awoke in the hospital after nearly three months in a coma – his “second birthday.”
“Because I lived,” he says. “Because I died three times during all the surgeries and I could have died in the coma. The girl in the bed next to me in the hospital had almost identical injuries to me from A to Z – and she didn’t make it.”
Kinan has had 128 surgeries – including a left hand transplant – over the last 11 years and faces many, many more.
“Scar tissue shrinks, and because it’s such soft tissue, it shrinks more often,” he explains. “So they have to go and add skin about every 18 months or so.”
But the devastating impact of the tragedy goes far beyond his physical wounds.
For years, Kinan was haunted by flames that would pop up in the distance when he was doing something as simple as walking down the street.
“I have what I call daymares,” he says. “I will see something just burst into flames. If I was in the house I’d check. I figured, ‘This isn’t really happening,’ but I’d go over and look [anyway].”
Kinan tries his best to avoid situations where he could be triggered – he even filled in the fireplace in his home with stone – but sometimes he’s surprised by it anyway. Like at a Michael Bublé concert last November.
“He opened the show with the entire stage in flames,” Kinan recalls. “We were sitting eight rows back, and we had that burst of heat come over us like a blanket.”
With sweat pouring off his body and his heart racing, Kinan hit the ground, keeping his head down until it was over.
Though he still grapples with his fear, the frequency of his “daymares” faded once he found what seemed impossible during his darkest days: love.
Falling in Love
Kinan met Pratt at the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors’ World Burn Congress in 2007. The two were instant friends.
Over the years, their friendship grew and, after Pratt became divorced in January 2010, blossomed into a romance that October at the World Burn Congress in New York City.
“A bunch of us went out for dinner for my birthday and he just leaned down and kissed me,” Pratt tells PEOPLE. “He said, ‘I hope that was okay.’ I said, ‘Yeah. It was fine.’ And I just smiled at him.”
They were inseparable for the rest of the trip and began a long-distance relationship afterward.
“Within the first couple of weeks, I knew I was in love,” she says.
He felt the same way. The following September, she moved to Massachusetts, and in October 2012, he proposed.
Kinan had thought of everything – he bought her the ring she’d been eyeing in a friend’s jewelry store a few months earlier, mailed it out to her parents’ home in Seattle so he could pop the question in Vancouver, where the 2007 conference was held, and made reservations for them to stay at the hotel where they had first met – but he let Pratt choose the restaurant for dinner that night.
But when they walked in, they got an uncomfortable surprise.
“The restaurant had candelabras against the back wall,” Pratt says, “and behind the candles were floor-to-ceiling mirrors so it looked like this room … ”
” … was on fire,” Kinan finishes.
Somehow, he got through dinner – and the proposal.
Having each been married before, they’re in no rush to set a wedding date. But in April, their family became complete with the arrival of their infant daughter.
“I was lonely before I met Carrie,” Kinan says. “I wondered if I’d ever be in a relationship again. And I’m determined to be the best dad I can to Hadley.”
Survivors like Kinan are still trying to raise money for a memorial to honor those victims. On Friday, Kinan and Pratt will speak on a panel about physical and psychological healing challenges, held Oct. 24 at the World Burn Congress in Anaheim, California – the same conference where they were introduced all those years ago.
It’s a reminder of how, despite all the obstacles, Kinan has done a remarkable job rebuilding his life.
“When I woke up and found out what was wrong with me,” he says, “right then and there I said, ‘This is my hand. These are my cards. I’ll just play them the best I can.’ ”
For more about Joe Kinan’s new life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands now