Making a life after the fire
Beauty really is only skin deep, as Sandra Simpson is reminded
Hasti Adlparvar doesn't want your pity. What's more, she doesn't need
your pity. The 24-year-old education student talks about her near-death
in a fire dry-eyed and with admirable frankness. She literally still
bears the scars of the tragedy and will for the rest of her life. But
despite her own trauma and the death of loved ones in the fire, a smile
is never far from her face and she is, she says, happy to be alive.
She arrives for our interview apologizing for keeping me waiting (10
minutes). I had mentally prepared for this moment, determined not to
flinch when I saw her. Yet my overwhelming impressions are of a wide
smile, a cloud of curly, dark hair and a gentle double-handed handshake.
The hands. Her right hand has no fingers, while those on the left
have been left misshapen. Yet when Adlparvar, an Iranian born in Lebanon,
tells what wonderful things surgeons in Louisville, Kentucky, have done
for her hands, it's hard not to agree with her. She's thrilled that she
can drive, swim, rollerblade, take lecture notes and make intricate
Since her homecoming in February after 18 months of treatment in the
United States, Adlparvar has re-entered the Lebanese-American University
and taken up where she left off in her education degree, planning to
graduate next year. Her decision to be a teacher came after a year spent
as a volunteer teacher and dorm parent in a school in the Czech Republic
in 1995. She switched from journalism to education at LAU and in her
first year on the new course met Wisam al-Chidiac and fell in love. The
couple began to plan their wedding.
But on February 26, 1997, her world fell apart. "It's like God was
watching me make all these plans and just wagged His finger at me," she
says. About 25 people of the Baha'i faith were gathered at a Monteverde
home that evening when the electricity went off. Someone started the
generator on the kitchen balcony, refueled it, locked the balcony door
and put the fuel container next to the refrigerator.
Adlparvar was washing dishes with al-Chidiac and her brother-in-law,
Andrew Wallace, a teacher, when someone filled the kettle to make tea.
That person mistook the fuel container for a water container, but the
smell as the fuel heated acted as an alarm and the kettle was thrown
on to the kitchen floor.
"I could have run out then," Adlparvar says. "I just saw a blodge
of fire in the center of the room. There was space for me to get out
and the door to the rest of the apartment was still open. Andrew poured
water on the fire to put it out and then it was everywhere. "I don't
remember the details, just lots of fire. I don't remember any pain
it wasn't a horrifying moment for me. I thought I was going to die and
go to God. I had my hands stretched out a window, praying. If I had
stayed there, I would have died, the fire was leaping towards the open
window, that's why my back was so badly burned".
Three people escaped before backdraft swung the interior door
closed. Furious efforts by rescuers to get into the kitchen were
initially of no avail. Adlparvar moved to comfort a pregnant women
trapped with her, placing her right hand over the woman's face. This
was when she lost her fingers, the fire burning her skin back to the
bone. She fainted.
Finally, the balcony door was forced open by rescuers with a fire
extinguisher and carpet. Wallace, 29, was dead. Al-Chidiac was shielding
his fiancée and two other women with his body. "Wisam and I
talked on the way to hospital and we prayed together. I walked into the
emergency room and then realized I really was burned, they had to cut my
clothes off. I could hear Wisam telling them that I was his fiancée
and that he would make sure my costs were met. He knew I didn't have
insurance. I am alive because of him".
Two days later, al-Chidiac died in hospital, a week before his
twenty-third birthday. A woman in her 50s died a week later, while the
pregnant woman delivered a stillborn baby in hospital the night of the
fire. Adlparvar didn't know al-Chidiac or Wallace had died until her
family felt she would be able to cope with the news, although whether
she would have to be given the news at all was doubtful. She was given a
50 percent chance of survival, suffering burns to 55 percent of her body
all her back, face, scalp, neck, one arm, both hands and one leg.
The other leg has since been scarred by the harvesting of skin for
grafting. "I like that scar," she says. Adlparvar was unconscious for
three weeks and stayed in the Jetawi Hospital burns unit three months.
She harbors no bitterness about the fire and has never wanted to
apportion blame. "Each person made a little mistake which by itself
was not a mistake. So many elements contributed to what happened. I've
never felt like giving blame, either individually or collectively. It
was an accident.
"Mind you, I've been angry with God a few times."
Visa problems meant she had to wait until September before traveling
to the United States for further treatment. Adlparvar has undergone over
10 operations and will return to Kentucky this summer for another.
"There came a point when I couldn't be treated in Lebanon anymore.
They wanted to amputate two of my fingers on my left hand and to put my
other hand inside my stomach to regenerate the skin. I didn't want that.
I knew there had to be other alternatives. I was so lucky to go to
Louisville where there is a well-known group of hand surgeons."
She has refused cosmetic surgery, an unusual choice for a young
woman who had been beautiful. Her hair has been restored thanks to an
operation which saw the "huge area" of scar tissue removed and a flap
of healthy skin cut and pulled across the scalp to "patch" the area.
"Beauty is when you accept who you are and appreciate who you are.
Ugliness is when you try to be something else." I am moved by the
profundity of this, then moved to laughter by Adlparvar's glee when
she tells me it's not original, but a quote from Italian actress Sophia
Loren. Her own take on cosmetic surgery is, "the scars are proof of
part of my life I don't want to erase that or them. I can't ever
not look like a burn victim and right now I'd rather get on with my
"I had the most amazing support in hospital here, friends and family
who took a big chunk out of their lives to come and be with me. Even
when I was unconscious there was a steady stream of visitors who talked
to me, telling jokes, bringing me up-to-date on gossip. That support
led to a particular kind of faith which in turn led to a belief in
Surgeons have concentrated on her mobility, freeing her neck from
both skin grafts which had tightened and scarring which kept it rigid.
One doctor undertook hand surgery for free "just because he was nice".
"They're more humanitarian in America," Adlparvar says. "In Lebanon
everything is money oriented. The nurses in Louisville genuinely cared
for me and would explain every procedure and say sorry if they hurt me
with a needle. Here, no one tells you anything, they just do things to
you and an apology is out of the question. But I have to say that nurses
give their lives to the job because they're not paid well."
She also appreciated the American attitude to physical difference.
"In the U.S. you see differences all the time from really obese people
to people with major disabilites so everyone reacts in a very friendly
"I was very worried about coming back because I've seen people react
to differences, even cultural differences. A Lebanese looks down on a Sri
Lankan, for example, a rich person looks down on the poor, a beautiful
person looks down on the ugly, the educated look down on the non-educated.
Everything in society here is ranked and the disabled are looked down on
as lesser people.
"So far I've been in a very protected environment. My friends take
me out and we are all people who don't hide what we feel. They all saw
me at my worst. Their reaction was, "wow, we can see through the scars
now." The Lebanese are followers, so if someone reacts well and positively
to me, they will too."
The turning point in her recovery was, she says, when she realized
she was happy to be alive. Banal perhaps, but a major step forward.
"In the beginning I wished I had gone with Wisam," Adlparvar says simply.
"I lost someone I loved and the picture of me going with him is very
natural. I don't feel guilty that I survived, but he was a big part of
saving my life and I wanted to live my life to the full with him."
She admits that during her long recovery she sometimes doubted her
faith, yet regular dreams of her fiancé and "many, many other
things" answered her questions. "I believed in life after death before,
but it has really come home to me now. I find myself talking to Wisam
and I know he is with me."
Adlparvar remains close to her fiancé's mother, although
knows the visits are bitter-sweet. "I remind her of her son not being
here, but she's taught me what mother love really is. Seeing her now
is like being given the best gift in the world. It gives me life, it
makes me feel closer to Wisam."
The ongoing support of her sister Huda, widowed and made a single
parent to two young children by the fire, has been a major part of
Adlparvar's healing. "She's a connection to my previous life and we
talk a lot. We've always been more than sisters she's my role
model and is so selfless in loving me. She was going through so much
herself, yet she was there every day taking care of me.
"I'm learning that the number of ways of dealing with loss is the
same as the number of people in the world. I'm still going through it.
I'm still living it and I won't ever get over it in the sense that most
people talk about."
Yet she talks excitedly about completing her degree, working as a
teacher and "ultimately" doing a Ph.D. I remind her that she's making
plans again. "We live in a third world country," she says. "You need
to plan ahead. If you don't you're doomed".
Then she laughs. A hearty, healthy, happy laugh.
©Copyright 1999, The Daily Star, Lebanon