When Joe Kinan walked into the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003, it was starting to fill up. Kinan, a 34-year-old divorced salesman who spent his free hours lifting weights, had gone to hear the rock band Great White, which put on a flashy pyrotechnics show. “They opened playing guitars and had the sparklers going,” Kinan recalls. “Fifteen seconds later one of the curtains caught fire.” So began one of the deadliest club fires in history, which killed 100 people and left more than 200 injured. Kinan suffered third- and fourth-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. His scalp was nearly scorched off; he lost his fingers and toes and sight in his left eye. But out of tragedy he rebuilt his life—and found love.
KINAN: [After the fire started,] it was just this wave of people falling on top of each other. My friend [Karla Bagtaz, 41] was next to me. All I saw was black smoke. I had a leather vest, so I opened it up and covered her. She ended up suffocating in the crowd. I was in terrible pain until my skin burned off. Then I had no feeling.
He spent nearly a year in the hospital, undergoing dozens of painful skin-graft surgeries. Coming home, he felt ashamed of how he looked and shut himself off from the world.
KINAN: I kept the mirrors covered. I pretty much stayed in the house. I didn’t go into restaurants; if people looked at me, they’d lose their appetite. But after about two years, I uncovered the mirrors and just stared. These scars couldn’t be hidden. I had to accept it, or it was going to eat me up.
Attending the World Burn Congress in Vancouver in 2007, Kinan met Carrie Pratt. A native of Seattle, Pratt, now 36, suffered severe burns on her chest and neck as a toddler from a hot-coffee accident at her child-care center.
PRATT: I’d been going to a camp [for burn survivors] since I was 9, so I’d seen kids as severely burned as Joe. His appearance was no big deal. He was just a complete extrovert, friendly and easygoing. He had a great outlook. I liked his personality. Married when they met, Pratt divorced two years later. She thought of Kinan, who has a daughter, Kate Sullivan, 24, from a prior relationship, as just a friend. That all changed when the two attended a burn-survivors conference in New York.
KINAN: She was beautiful, but it was all the other stuff. She’s sweet, kind, thoughtful, openhearted.
PRATT: We went out to dinner on my birthday and had our first kiss. I had butterflies. But I felt safe. He was compassionate and caring, and he wanted to take care of me. Joe is my rock.
In 2011 Pratt moved to Lakeville, Mass. The two are engaged and now live with their baby daughter Hadley, 6 months. Joe, who has had 128 surgeries, got a left-hand transplant in 2012, enabling him to feel Hadley’s hair when he strokes her head.
KINAN: Carrie has brought everything to my life. Hadley’s so cute. I feel happy, nervous, fulfilled. Nobody knows what’s coming in an hour or two or five. I’m just determined to be the best dad I can be. •