Cape Breton burn survivor wakes to arson in his front yard

Greg McNeil
Published on June 25, 2014

Dwayne Dalton stands beside his truck that was burned outside of his Sydney home on Tuesday morning. The fire invoked frightening memories of an incident four years ago that left him with burns to most of his body and very nearly cost him his life.

©Greg McNeil - TC Media


Dwayne Dalton awoke early Tuesday morning to the all-too-familiar smell of smoke.

"When I looked out the window all I could see were flames," the 45-year-old Sydney man said. "The first thing I thought was 'oh no, not again.'"

It was just over four years ago when Dalton was painting his former MacLeod's Hill home when an explosion engulfed him in flames and burned more than 70 per cent of his body.

The fire on Tuesday morning turned out to be a suspected act of arson that only destroyed his truck and didn't spread to his Hillside Street home.

"All I could see were the flames and then I saw four or five firemen," he said. "I was lucky enough that they were up the road where another vehicle was on fire. They were already here."

Dalton was told that the suspected arsonists most likely pulled everything out of the dash of his truck, stuffed it under his seat and then set the fire.

He remained awake all night, re-living the memories the fire invoked, the people who caused it and his life in general.

"I have orthotics in my shoes and I can't walk very well without them. I thought 'how am I going get dressed and get over these stairs?'"

Despite the difficulty he knew he'd have getting over the stairs, giving up was never a consideration.

That's the way he's been living his life since the first fire that burned him, on Feb. 22, 2010, and throughout the numerous setbacks and challenges associated with the treatments that followed.

"I had less than a five per cent chance to survive. A priest came in and gave me last rites and I survived. I took it one day at a time."

Initially, he could only move his eyes, but after years of work, he left his hospital bed and progressed into a wheelchair, and then a walker, before finding the strength to walk on his own.

He believes a strong desire to hold his children again and a lifetime of boxing training saved him from dying in the first fire and then helped him through his recovery.

"I was told when people catch on fire it is the first 30 seconds that determines if they are going to die. The pain is that severe that people panic. All the years in boxing the one thing you learn is that no matter how hurt you are you always keep calm."

Prior to the 2010 fire, he was a boxing coach and is now working towards getting that aspect of his life back.

He trains every day at the YMCA and three times a week in addition to that at a gym owned by his friend Peter Sieperski. When he's ready, Sieperski is giving him the opportunity to coach again.

"When I had the boxing club in Whitney Pier I gave him the keys and told him 'to train whenever you want.' He has done the same for me."

He's also finished several chapters of a book about his life called "Fighter Under Fire" and plans to begin motivational speaking to anyone who wants to hear his story.

His first outing will be in September in Sydney at an organ and tissue donor conference.

"No matter what happens I don't consider myself a victim, I consider myself a survivor. You just keep moving forward. I hope this book will inspire other people who think they can't go on."

Tuesday's fire means the truck he depended on to get to hospital each day for treatment related to his burns, and to pick up his children, is now lost to him.

His basic insurance plan won't replace it and a modest disability income means he can't afford a new one.

"Even this doesn't deter me from people in Cape Breton," he said, citing numerous acts of kindness since his accident in 2010. "All day long people have been telling what is wrong in Cape Breton and people are going crazy."

But this time last year he was told amputating his legs was an option, so he's not letting his latest setback keep him down.

"This is another hurdle. I don't want to people to think Cape Bretoners are bad, because they are not."