A horrific fire left Charlie Xavier with third-degree burns on 85% of her body and fighting for her life — now she wants to inspire others to survive
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Charlie & Andre Xavier and their two sons, London 5 and Julien17 months, at home. As Charlie returns home from several months in the hospital: recovering from severe burns. Charlottsville VA . Photographs by Ashley CoxPhotographed on May 26th 2022. Photographed by Ashley Cox
Credit: Ashley Cox

Charlie Xavier remembers every single detail from the morning of September 10, 2021, when life as she knew it changed forever

Leaving her Charlottesville, Virginia, home before dawn, the mom of two boys, London, 4, and Julien, 9 months, made the short drive to Patch Brewing Co., the brewery she and her husband André planned to open in a few days.

Charlie was determined to finish making a chalkboard table to go in the kids' play area, but within minutes of sanding the wooden frame, she fell, sending the electric sander to the ground where it sparked fumes and created a massive explosion. 

"Suddenly, my entire body was engulfed in flames," recalls Charlie, 36, who managed to walk a few steps to the gravel and then dropped and rolled back-and-forth a few times, putting out the fire. "I was just sort of chanting, 'Please, God. Let me live.' "

She was taken to the VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond, Virginia, with third-degree burns on 85% of her body. It would be 10 months before she finally got to go home to her family.

CHARLIE XAVIER, 9/18/21, First week in Hospital. Virginia Commonwealth University Health, Evans-Haynes Burn Unit.
Credit: courtesy Charlie & Andre Xavier

During the first few days after the accident, André didn't know if his wife of 14 years would make it through.

"The doctor told me that her body was fighting as hard as it could to stay alive. The whole world just stopped," he tells PEOPLE. "I tried to speak, and I was just frozen."

After many touch-and-go moments at the burn center — and being given a 3% chance of survival — Charlie's condition stabilized. She endured 54 surgeries before being moved to rehab in March and had to relearn how to walk, eat, and talk. The only thing that got her through each painful day was thinking of her little boys and being able to get home to them by her birthday on June 6. 

For the full story on Charlie Xavier's miraculous survival and recovery, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

No matter what Charlie was going through, her sons remained her highest priority. Right after she got hurt, André recalls walking into her room, expecting to see her in a coma. Instead, she was awake, and while she couldn't talk because she was intubated and wrapped from her neck down, she was able to write down a few sentences. 

"She wrote, 'please take my lunch box out of the car. I have a tuna fish sandwich in there. And make sure to buy baby formula for baby Julien. We're out of it,' " recalls André, a businessman. "I just smiled and laughed. Even in that moment she was thinking of her kids." 

That humor, along with a refusal to give up, helped the family navigate all the tough days ahead. Charlie continued to be a hands-on mom as much as possible, even picking out the boys' Halloween costumes from her hospital bed.

But there were dark times as well.

"I was on a lot of medication, and I was having horrible hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares," Charlie tells PEOPLE in her first interview since the accident. "And sometimes when André came to visit, I didn't even know who he was." 

He adds: "I was heartbroken because I would see the fear in her eyes. She was so scared and there was nothing I could do to comfort her," says André, who created a website, Cheering on Charlie, to communicate updates about Charlie's progress. 

During the first few months, Charlie was treated for numerous infections and had to undergo surgical debridement and skin graft procedures.

"It was extremely painful," says Charlie, who leaned on her support system during the unbearable wound care, one of the most crucial parts to her recovery. "Some areas of my body were not even covered yet." 

As André cared for the kids at home with the help of his mom, the family's community stepped up to provide meals, while a GoFundMe page was created to help with their mounting medical expenses. 

CHARLIE XAVIER, 3/28/22- using her standing wheel chair, as she does OT, navigating the kitchen and making the Sunshine Muffins she makes for her family at home. Sheltering Arms Institute.
Credit: courtesy Charlie & Andre Xavier

Charlie, who finally came home on May 26, 2022, now wants to be a motivational speaker to inspire others going through adversity. She says if her story "saves one person's life, then it was all worth it and I would do it again."

No matter what happens, there is a way forward, she says.

The couple also wrote a book, I Almost Lost Her: A Memoir of Unthinkable Tragedy, which is about the accident and how they found the strength to keep going. 

Since returning home to her family, Charlie has come to terms with her new reality. "Even though I'm alive, I'm gone. I'm not the same," she says. "We are not perfect, but we went through something that was quite hard, and we made it."

Accepting help has been hard for both Charlie and André, who were a "power couple" before the accident, says Charlie, and had an ideal life in many ways. 

Now their days are filled with full-time aids at home, doctor's appointments, planning future surgeries, and learning how Charlie can gain back her independence with physical limitations.

"I'm very excited for my future," says Charlie, who relishes every moment being back with her family. "My life is even better now than what it was before."