The coolness of the bricks where she lay when the pain finally came.
Every detail is locked in a memory no one should have.
Two years ago this week, Calais Weber's life changed forever — in literally the blink of an eye.
An explosion and fire in the chemistry lab at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson burned her face, hands, trunk and legs. The burns covered 46 percent of her body.
Two students and a teacher and her son were hospitalized that day. Calais was the most critically injured.
In December, Calais and her family settled a lawsuit against Western Reserve Academy for $13.15 million. The other student, Cecelia Chen, who suffered burns on 18 percent of her body, settled for $5.8 million.
Only now has Calais agreed to talk about the accident and its impact on her and what has been her bird-step movement forward.
''People have no idea what I've been through,'' she said.
Calais is 17 and a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. As she still struggles to heal, she is on a mission: to make sure what happened to her doesn't happen to anyone else.
She's putting up $100,000 of her settlement for a safety program to educate chemistry teachers.
''Because it was so preventable,'' she railed. ''It should not have happened.''
But it did happen on Jan. 23, 2006, at the private boarding school in Hudson that attracts students from all over the world.
''It was a Monday,'' Calais said, beginning a harrowing journey in time. ''Normally, I would have had a long lunch when I would conduct fashion-design meetings.'' But she said she was tired of most of the 30 students who had signed up not showing, ''so I canceled that day.''
Calais had a strong interest in fashion. She had modeled professionally and appeared in several local stage productions.
Please see A fireball A8
''So I went back to my dorm room and watched my friends.''
She wanted to relax after taking a Spanish quiz and an Advanced Placement U.S. history test and turning in a big drama-class assignment.
''The weather had started getting warm. So, I took off my tights and changed my boots for shoes.''
A short time later she was off to fifth period: comprehensive chemistry class in Wilson Hall. Class started at 1:30 p.m.
''I went in. The teacher — Julie Pratt — was setting up the experiment with her 11-year-old son, Sam,'' Calais said.
''It was not odd to see him (Sam) there. He would perform experiments himself.''
About 10 people were in the room. As usual, Calais sat down next to Cecelia. Students began looking through a spectrascope, which they held up to the light.
There were ''seven little dishes on the teacher's desk in front of the room. They were uncovered. . . .
''At about 2:10, Mrs. Pratt called us to gather around the desk to see the (color of the rainbow ) experiment. . . . I was about 6 inches away from it,'' Calais said.
''She turned the lights off . . . Cecelia was on my left and Sam was on my right.
''Sam began to drop matches into each dish. Left to right.
''The experiment was really cool! Each (dish) was the color of the rainbow.''
Calais remembers Sam saying, '' 'Madre, the red is going on out.' He said it twice.''
The teacher picked up ''a gallon jug. It was on my left and her right. It was full of liquid (methanol). She finished unscrewing it and she began to pour. It was level with the table. Then it started to explode.''
Calais must pause her narrative here, to take a moment to compose herself.
''A fireball 3 to 4 feet wide hit me directly, knocking me onto the ground. I knew I was on fire.
''Immediately, I felt my hair singed to the scalp. I remember throwing my hands up to my face.''
She continues to be surprised by her calmness as she fought to put out the fire engulfing her.
''I remembered in first grade being taught to 'stop, drop and roll.' That's what I did. But the fire didn't go out.''
That's when Calais, who was lying on a ''linoleum'' floor, ''decided to crawl outside of the classroom onto carpet.''
Her polyester kilt — part of the school uniform — was completely melted by then.
''My skirt was stuck to the floor. I knew I had to keep going. So, I used my fingernails to pull myself across the floor.''
All the while, Calais could hear the teacher yelling to everyone: ''Run!''
''Wait! A little help over here, please,'' Calais tried to say. But the words swirling in her head would not come out of her mouth.
''I tried to scream. But nothing came out. . . . And everybody else was gone.''
The methanol fumes she swallowed prevented her from speaking, but she refused to give up.
She spotted a fire extinguisher and tried to get to it.
''It didn't seem like real time,'' she said. ''Finally, I did give up. That's when I started to pray I would die as quickly as possible.''
Calais again pauses in her story to give those listening — her parents, Larry and Valarie Weber of Green; this columnist, who is her godmother, and photographer and longtime family friend Ed Suba Jr. — time to regain their composure.
''But a split second later, I heard this voice shout, 'Oh my God!' ''
It was Gary Fitts, the school custodian, ''who grabbed the fire extinguisher and put me out. He picked me up by my shoulders and dragged me out.''
As she lay outside on the cool bricks waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Calais remembers ''being pretty naked. Then, the nightmare and the pain started to hit.
''I felt like I had tripped and fallen on asphalt with my skin stripped away — only 100 times more!''
Several ambulances showed up. Calais was put in the same one with Pratt, whose hands were burned, and her son Sam, who was burned over 37 percent of his body.
''His skin was gone, too,'' she said. ''And he was screaming. I turned to him and said, 'Sam, it's going to be OK! I'm not going to be dying anytime soon and I'm burned worse than you.' ''
The pain was excruciating and Calais asked the paramedics for morphine like Sam had been given. They told her they couldn't administer it because her parents weren't there to give approval.
Larry and Valarie Weber beat the ambulance to the Burn Center at Akron Children's Hospital, where their daughter would remain, part of the time clinging to life, for 70 days.
''I saw my dad looking into the ambulance and saying, 'I'm looking for my daughter,' '' Calais said.
''He handled it OK. But I could see in his eyes that something was very wrong with me.''
Her mother wasn't able to contain her emotions.
''She screamed bloody murder.''
Remarkably, throughout this ordeal, Calais' sense of humor sometimes peeked through.
''They started cutting the rest of my clothes off in the ambulance. When they started to go for my bra, I said, 'No, this is my favorite Pink bra from Victoria Secret. It's the one I wear with T-shirts.' ''
Calais still has that bra with its chemical stains.
Things blur a little after that.
''I don't remember the transport from emergency to the triage room.''
But she does remember a nurse's apology: ''Calais, I'm so sorry. We have to shave your head.''
''Do I look like G.I. Jane?'' she responded, making reference to a Demi Moore film.
Then she was lowered for the first of many times into the whirlpool.
''I felt what seemed like a big potato skinner working on my legs.''
She was so thin — 5 feet 91/2 inches tall and 105 pounds — that the amount of morphine hardly took the edge off.
''Next, I was all wrapped up and in my room. I told the nurses I still had my contacts in and the rubber bands (attached to braces) in my mouth.''
She was having trouble understanding why the nurses wouldn't allow her to remove them herself. She didn't realize the skin on her hands was missing.
There were a couple of silver linings in her ordeal. Her contacts were silicone, which repelled the chemicals she came in contact with. Water-based lenses would have absorbed them.
And doctors believe that the removal of her panty hose at lunch time may have saved her life. She would have been even more badly burned had she been wearing them.
Calais hovered between life and death many times. She was in a drug-induced coma for the first four days, ''so I would be out for the worst part of it.''
Given the catastrophic nature of her injuries, no one was surprised when she developed pneumonia.
In addition to the physical trauma — including numerous grafts using her own undamaged skin, cadaver and pig skin and Integra, an artificial product — she battled hallucinations.
''All involved being in the fire,'' she said.
''The Red Cross flew my brother (Jason Robinson) in from Iraq because I was critical. Even he was in my hallucinations.''
When she speaks of her family, her gratitude overflows.
''I have one-in-a-million parents. They were always right there with me. My mother wrote everything down in a notebook.''
Once when it seemed like she was out of the woods, Calais sent her parents home from the hospital for a few hours, admonishing them: ''You stink!''
Eventually, she healed enough to return to school. She believes others blamed her for the accident since the fireball hit her directly.
''I lost all of my old friends.''
She began blaming herself, too.
''Was it my hair spray? My perfume?
''I went through a crazy depression. I became mean and pushed new friends away — those who dared to be my friends.''
That's when she found herself ''in my dorm room'' with a bottle of prescription pills ''and looking online to see how much I would need to stop my heart.''
Again there was that silver lining.
''I didn't have enough.
''The only reason I didn't give up every day or end my life is that my parents wouldn't be able to go on.''
Calais and her parents have been buoyed by the out-of-court settlement. Their lawsuit laid the blame for the accident squarely on the shoulders of the teacher and the school.
Depositions showed that no hood was used to contain the fumes, no goggles were handed out to the students and the gallon jug of methanol, with its highly flammable fumes, was not supposed to be in the room.
Many high schools have outlawed the experiment, citing its dangers.
Very telling, Calais insists, is what happened in her chemistry class at Wellesley College.
''My first experiment there was the 'color of the rainbow' experiment.''
She shared her fear with the professor.
''Don't worry,'' the professor said. ''We don't use methanol in our experiment. You're not supposed to.''
Calais began to move in a positive direction just before she went off to college.
''I met this woman, Nancy Ogden-West, who helps burn survivors at the Burn Center. . . . My physical therapist, Diane Woods, introduced me to her.''
After considerable arm-twisting, Ogden-West convinced Calais to go with her to Angel Face, a weeklong confidence-building and makeup program in San Diego for young female victims with ''facial disfigurements.''
Initially, Calais had a reservation about going.
''I thought I would be taking someone's place who needed it more.
''It wasn't a burn camp but a retreat to get away from all the people who call you names. . . . Some of the girls were a lot younger than me. For some, it's all they've known.''
Calais regularly receives treatment at Shriner's Hospital Burn Center in Boston and from Dr. Tina Alster, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist who specializes in laser surgery.
The Shriner's Hospital services are free. The every-other-month bill to Alster is $16,000.
Her life-saving medical care at Children's Hospital cost about $1 million.
Calais and her family dispute any assertion that they will be rich from the settlement.
Life-care planners estimate, without figuring in inflation, that Calais will need more than $5 million in medical treatments in the future.
Ironically, her career plan is the same as it was before the accident: She wants to become a reconstructive surgeon.
Part of the settlement will go toward that goal.
''No,'' said Calais. ''We didn't hit Jackpot Justice.''
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.