A Washington mother has made an incredible recovery after experiencing horrific third-degree burns to her body last year while saving her children from a house fire.
When Angel Fiorini woke up in her home around midnight on October 28, 2016, she found herself struggling to breathe. She mustered the strength to rise from bed and open her bedroom door, and stood in front of a terrifying sight: her home was on fire and engulfed in thick smoke, with her three children—Gianna, Vinnie and Rosalie—inside.
“It was really hot already, even though it was on the opposite side of the house,” Fiorini, 33, of Spokane, Washington, tells PEOPLE. “I just knew I had to get out.”
Fiorini placed her youngest children—Vinnie, 4, and Rosalie, 2—in each arm and rushed them to safety outside, but the fire was spreading quickly with Gianna, 8, still in her room.
“In that moment, the smoke being so thick and so black, and the fire moving as fast as it was, I had no idea how I would get back in there,” Fiorini explains, crediting her strength in those moments to her faith in God. “There was no way that I was going to stand outside my house watching it burn with her inside. There was nobody to call for help, and I knew that I was the only one who knew where she was in the house, and waiting wasn’t an option.”
With her living room in flames, Fiorini laid on her stomach to maneuver through the thick smoke to reach Gianna.
“I couldn’t go in with eyes open between the heat and the smoke, so it was almost an army crawl across the ground,” she recalls. “I crawled towards the bedroom door and had to feel my way into her doorway.”
Once she reached Gianna, Fiorini dragged her from the room to the front door as the fire torched their limbs. Fiorini says her skin “melted off onto the doorknob” as she attempted to escape through the front door, and she passed out just feet from the front entrance. By chance, a volunteer firefighter passing by rushed in to pull them from the flames.
When Fiorini regained consciousness outside, she helplessly watched her home and belongings turn to ash. Her then-boyfriend of 15 years and father to her children, Aaron, was out and unaware of what had happened.
“Gianna and I had skin charred, melting, hanging off of our arms and our hands,” Fiorini remembers.
The heroic rescue left Fiorini and Gianna with third-degree burns to much of their bodies, and they were soon admitted to the burns center at University of Washington School of Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center.
Thanks to her mom’s bravery, little Gianna escaped with injuries less severe than her mother’s, who had almost half her body burned. Doctors wrapped Fiorini’s arms in thick bandages and placed her on a ventilator to breathe.
“I remember waking up and being really angry that I couldn’t move my arms or talk,” she says. “I remember trying to tell the people around me that I needed my arms down, and I needed something to drink. But I couldn’t say anything. All I could say was, ‘Argh!’ “
Though she contracted bacterial pneumonia and experienced a pulmonary embolism that almost killed her during her admittance, Fiorini returned home five weeks later on December 2. To her surprise, her community quickly banded together to relieve some of the family’s struggles: local businesses gifted them a car and a couch, others raised thousands of dollars, and one family generously gave them a mobile home to live in. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family for anyone who wants to lend their support. Still, Fiorini said she struggled with accepting so much help.
“I think it’s a natural thing for a lot of people to have a hard time receiving things. Even though we lost everything, I just couldn’t really put together why so many people had come together and donated so much stuff,” she says. “People lose their house in fires pretty often, and it was hard for me to comprehend why we were being so blessed.”
Aaron took the lead on Fiorini’s wound care, changing her dressing every day as she recovered. Though they had been together for 15 years and were content with not officially tying the knot, Aaron proposed to Fiorini on January 20, and they married on July 28.
Fiorini and Gianna have made tremendous emotional and physical strides in their recovery since the night that changed their lives.
“We don’t really talk about it very much now, but Gianna did in the very beginning,” Fiorini says. “I think that might have been really healing for her, being able to be open in the first couple months about her feelings and what had happened, and her experiences.”
According to the National Fire Protection Agency, more than 2,500 people die a year in the U.S. from house fires. Fiorini says she didn’t have a working smoke detector at the time of the fire, and the cause of the blaze is still “undetermined.” Today, she is aiming to raise awareness about fire safety and remind people to check their alarms.
“I have a really strong desire to make a difference from all of this. My life wasn’t just spared for no reason,” Fiorini says. “It’s something that gives me strength, knowing what I’ve overcome and what I’ve been able to fight through.”