Derry boy overcomes burns from July, 2012 fireworks blast in Pelham

Union Leader Correspondent
August 07. 2013 10:42PM
Benjamin Bertini, who will turn 4 later this month, shows off a paper crane that was made for him during his recovery after he was burned in a fireworks explosion in Pelham on July 3, 2012. (JASON SCHREIBER PHOTO)

DERRY -- Benjamin Bertini is gearing up for T-ball next month.

Joining the T-ball team is quite an accomplishment for a little boy who a year ago was just beginning to walk again after he was seriously burned in a fireworks explosion.

"We never forget how lucky we are," his mother, Jessica Pappathan, said as Benjamin ate an apple and quietly drew pictures on his little desk in the living room of his Derry home Wednesday.

Pappathan and her husband, Robert Bertini, have been by their son's side on the long road to recovery that followed the fireworks accident at Pappathan's parents' home last July.

After suffering burns over nearly 30 percent of his body, Benjamin's injuries have healed well.

"He's a super healer," his dad said with a smile.

In their first interview since the explosion, Bertini and Pappathan recalled the day that changed their lives and the outpouring of support for their little boy, who turns 4 on Aug. 29.

It was in the early evening hours of July 3, 2012, and the couple had arrived at Pappathan's parents' home in Pelham for an annual Fourth of July party that included a fireworks display.

Pappathan, 33, recalled walking from the porch onto the deck while holding her son's hand. She let go of him for a moment to snap a picture. Then there was an explosion.

"It all happened so fast," she said.

Pappathan was knocked down the stairs and suffered a head injury and some burns to her foot and arm.

She became separated from Benjamin, who suffered more serious burns and a large puncture wound after fireworks hit him in the chest. The fiery explosion also burned off his hair.

Amid the chaos, Bertini called 911 as Pappathan's father, Christopher, ran into the fire to unhook a propane tank on a grill to prevent further explosions.

"It obviously would have been much worse had he not done that," Pappathan said of the effort by her father, who also suffered burns.

Her step-brother, Andy Cardwell, an off-duty paramedic and Pelham firefighter, jumped into action and tried to help as many of the injured as he could.

"He was just bouncing between everyone that was there," Pappathan said.

Thirteen people — five of them children — suffered burns and puncture wounds.

An investigation by the state Fire Marshal's Office showed that those injured in the accident were on or near a back deck where about 344 unpackaged, reloadable mortar shells were stored.

Witnesses told investigators that an aerial "spinner" landed in the pile of exposed shells, setting off the explosion.

Benjamin was airlifted to Boston Children's Hospital and then transferred to Shriner's Hospitals for Children in Boston, where he spent nearly a month undergoing skin grafts and other treatments.

Benjamin received third-degree burns on his right leg, back, chest and right arm and second-degree burns in other areas.

Bertini, 31, realized the gravity of the injuries when he learned that his son would have to be intubated, with a tube placed in his trachea to keep his airway open while he remained unconscious.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks and I realized this was really serious," Bertini said.

As soon as she was released from the hospital, Pappathan joined her husband and they remained at their son's side while he was wrapped up "like a mummy" and intubated for a week. When he finally awoke and had the tube removed, his first words were, "Momma, are you OK?"

Benjamin remembered the fire. He remembered that his mother was hurt. He also remembered seeing a dog cage burning.

During his month-long stay at Shriner's, Benjamin received eight skin grafts that have healed but must still be monitored for years to come.

As he grows, Benjamin may need surgeries up to the age of 21.

"We just don't know how many, but we've been told to be prepared. There are a lot of unknowns because he's still growing. We take it day by day and try to live a normal life," Pappathan said.

The scars from the burns are barely noticeable when he's wearing clothes.

"It could have been worse. They could have been on his face," Pappathan said. "It makes you realize how quickly something can happen."

While they must limit his sun exposure, Benjamin's parents said he's able to enjoy life like other kids.

He loves his music class and playing on the swing set in his backyard.

In the weeks after the accident, Benjamin received countless cards, stuffed animals, handmade quilts and other presents from strangers wishing him well.

Everything was saved as a reminder of the support that was shown for Benjamin.

"It was such a comfort and we're so thankful. It was overwhelming, but in a good way," Pappathan said.

Bertini and Pappathan said they realize the explosion was an accident and have no animosity toward Pappathan's father, Chris, who hosted the party.

"If you talk to anyone who knows him, they'll tell you what a great person he is," Bertini said.

Pappathan said the family has moved forward.

So has her son.

"It's been hard," she said, "but we got through it and we're stronger because of it."

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