'I Knew I Was Messed Up, but I Kept on Joking'
It was supposed to be just a routine bit of housework. On April 17, 2006, comedian Mark Curry, best known for his five-season stint as the titular teacher on the 1990s ABC sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, was doing laundry in his Oakland home when he accidentally knocked an aerosol can of spray starch off a shelf. According to Curry, the can hit a metal bracket that connected a water heater to the wall and ruptured. Its contents spilled in front of the heater’s pilot light. The combustible combo of fire and aerosol set off an explosion that blew Curry 10 feet back and engulfed him in flames. Curry, 45, suffered third-degree burns over 18 percent of his body, including his arm, back and side. He spent four days in a medically induced coma and awoke to searing pain, a charred body and a crippling depression that left him contemplating suicide. Now nine months into his recovery, Curry talks to PEOPLE’s Oliver Jones about the accident, its arduous aftermath and getting back to full strength.
- THE MOMENT OF IMPACT
- [The explosion] blew me back through a door to another room while I was on fire. I screamed, “Fire, fire, fire!” My sister [who was visiting at the time] came running to me and put me out. I looked down, and I knew the severity of the situation, but I was able to calm down and call 911; [the operator] kept asking me questions like, What type of fire was it? A hot one! Where are you burned? Does it make a difference if it is my leg or my knee? Just get here! I got a lot of material from this thing. I remember when I was about to go into shock; I could feel it about to happen. But I kept joking! Nobody was laughing, but that didn’t stop me. But then I saw this [EMS] dude’s face when he looked at my burns, and I was like, “Uh-oh.” Then I was out cold. I didn’t wake up until four or five days later.
- THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH
- I couldn’t walk for two weeks after I woke up. I was burnt and disfigured. I wanted to commit suicide. Man, I cried every night. I’m not afraid to say it. I felt scarred and weak. I remember crying, saying I was less than a man. The people at St. Francis Hospital [in Oakland] saved my life.
- THE TREATMENT
- I was in the hospital for 10 days; they wrapped me up every day in gauze. They’d put a corrective lotion on my skin. I did go into the surgery room to see if I needed skin grafts, but thank God I didn’t. After I got out of the hospital, I’d go to the doctor every two weeks to get [the dead] skin scraped off.
• HOW HIS SPIRITS WERE LIFTED
After the accident, it was comedians who called me. It was Sinbad on the phone making me laugh. Martin Lawrence called, the Wayans brothers. When Bill Cosby calls you, jokes with you, it inspires you. He told me to keep my head up and be strong. I started crying when he was on the phone. After I got off the phone with him, I walked for the first time since the accident. I got up onstage [at a San Francisco comedy club] three, four days after I got out of the hospital. I had to do comedy. I thought it might be my last time onstage, and I wanted to get up and talk about this.
- LIFE AFTER THE ACCIDENT
- I can’t barbeque no more, and I was the king of the barbeque. I will never mess with that propane. Anything to do with fire: never. I wear sunblock. The heat kills me. They said I couldn’t swim, but I got in the pool. I ain’t getting in the hot tub any time soon. I use baby shampoo to clean with now. [My comedy] has a different edge than before. Before, I was the dude who wanted to keep a nice image. I wanted people to come to the show and say, He looked beautiful, he looked rich. Now I go onstage and talk about being in a coma and about suicide: Is there any more rich a subject for comedy than suicide? I haven’t gone to see a therapist. I just need to be funny onstage. That’s my therapy.
- WHAT HE DID WITH THE WATER HEATER
- I shot it with my .357 Magnum. They were pulling it out, and I said, “Before you take it, let me borrow that.” Pop pop pop. I shot it; then I pulled it apart. Neighbors thought I was crazy, but it felt great.