Man Who Nearly Died in Fire During College Is Now Rebuilding His Life — and Preaching Fire Safety

"I want to make sure that no one has to go through what I went through," Zach Sutterfield says

In July 2018, Zach Sutterfield was about to move into his first apartment and start his junior year at Texas State University. A few weeks before school started, he drove to campus to meet with his advisor, visit his girlfriend in Austin, and look for a job.

On July 19, Zach watched The Princess Bride with friends, joked with his mom about a basket of unmatched socks he left in his bedroom at home, and then crashed on his best friend's couch.

When he woke up two hours before sunrise, everything was red — and his hair was on fire. Zach ran out of the apartment, jumped over the second-story railing and landed on his head. On the ground, neighbors yelled at him, saying, 'Stop, drop and roll!,' while strangers took off their own clothes to put out the fire that burned his body.

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Zach Sutterfield. © 2021 Marie D. De Jesús

At around 5:13 a.m., Friday July 20, 2018, Zach's parents, D.J. and Karl Sutterfield, received a call from their son's best friend, saying the apartment building was on fire, and Zach wasn't answering his phone. The couple immediately jumped into their car and started driving.

"We left here in our pajamas," D.J. tells PEOPLE. "We thought we were going to go pickup Zach and bring him home."

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Fire at Iconic Village Apartments. Andrea Torres/San Antonio Express News

Zach's older brother started calling hospitals, and eventually found him at Brooke Army Medical Center, where nurses were able to identify Zach by the chess pieces tattooed on his feet: a queen and a pawn.

When Zach's parents arrived at the hospital, they were told to say goodbye. About 68 percent of Zach's body was burned. He was pronounced dead on arrival and had been resuscitated. Doctors then removed half his skull, because of brain swelling.

His parents told him they loved him, but they weren't ready to say goodbye. "We told him to fight," says his mother. "I wasn't going to give up. I told him not to give up. But if it got too hard, I understood."

"My wife and I saw things that no parents should ever see," recalls his father, Karl. "When you see that kind of pain and devastation, you just want to take it away. I told him, 'If it's too much, buddy, I get it, but if you got it in you, please, please fight.'"

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His mother, a former Army medic, learned how to care for Zach's wounds. She spent hours massaging his damaged right hand, separating what remained of his fingers which had fused together.

"My mom's the reason I have a hand," Zach says. Because of his mother's work, doctors were able to give Zach a thumb.

Zach was an inpatient at the hospital from July 20 until February 1, 2019. He then spent the next 9 months doing daily outpatient treatment. He still suffers from a traumatic brain injury and struggles with short term memory loss but he's learning how to do things for himself like cleaning, laundry, and cooking. He wants to be independent.

He has had 32 surgeries to date with more procedures to come as doctors try to repair and rebuild his damaged hands.

"There are some mornings I wake up and I expect to look how I used to. I used to have long blonde hair. It's hard sometimes just looking in the mirror and accepting that this is who I am, when I don't recognize myself all the time," Zach says. Still, he's grateful to be alive, since five others died in the same fire at the Iconic Village Apartments.

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Zach Sutterfield getting ready to deliver Christmas Eve dinner to medical staff in 2018. Courtesy DJ Sutterfield

Zach and his parents recently launched a non-profit called "Brighter than the Fire" to help educate students about fire safety.

"You learn it in elementary school, and then you learn it again in a retirement facility – and it's not really touched upon in between," Zach says. "I want you to know how a fire extinguisher works before you're pulling it off the wall, reading the back."

He speaks to high school students and college freshman sharing his story and teaching fire safety. "Learn from me," he says. "I want to make sure that no one has to go through what I went through."

He and his parents want to change laws and requiring all residential buildings to meet fire safety codes — even older buildings.

"There has to be a change," his mother says. "Everyone deserves to be able to go to sleep at night safely. That's all my kid did — he went to sleep one night, and he woke up to hell."

zach sutterfield
Zach Sutterfield. © 2021 Marie D. De Jesús

"This is real. I know that most of the folks think, 'It'll never happen to me.' And it can," says Tracey Bellamy, fire protection engineer with Telgian Engineering & Consulting in Atlanta.

Despite everything, Zach is a sunny, optimistic person who tries to spread kindness. When out in public, his goal is to give 20 compliments a day. "I try to make people smile. I try to give out more love than I receive," he says.

"I've got a really good life. And even when it's hard, it's worth it," Zach adds. "I'm very lucky. I'm loved."

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