Isaac Howard stands outside of oil refineries Thursday along March Point Road in Anacortes. He changed careers after losing an eye in a training accident while working as a firefighter 20 years ago. Now he works for Life Rescue, Inc., a Bellingham-based company, as an industrial safety and emergency services consultant. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Isaac Howard stands outside of oil refineries Thursday along March Point Road in Anacortes. He changed careers after losing an eye in a training accident while working as a firefighter 20 years ago. Now he works for Life Rescue, Inc., a Bellingham-based company, as an industrial safety and emergency services consultant. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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Blast took firefighter’s career and an eye, but didn’t stop him

It’s been 20 years since an explosion in a mobile fire training unit injured Gold Bar’s Isaac Howard.

Isaac Howard remembers “kind of hanging upside down,” barking orders, being in an aid car, and the helicopter ride to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. The firefighter from Gold Bar had burns on his face and glass in his eyes.

Nearly 20 years ago, on Aug. 6, 2001, Howard was in the control booth of a fire-training trailer in Gold Bar when an explosion blew out a window in the booth. At the time, he was a volunteer deputy chief with Snohomish County Fire District 26, known as Sky Valley Fire. And he was a paid firefighter in Edmonds.

Howard, now 62, lost an eye after the blast. He had many surgeries, and said “for awhile I was completely blind.” The accident ended his firefighting career in Edmonds.

“It was a real rough period for him,” said his wife, Karen Howard. She said he was crushed to learn, from a doctor with the fire department in Edmonds, that he was considered “totally disabled.”

Howard had tested for four years before becoming a full-time firefighter. “I was 30 or 31 when I got hired on. It was a huge deal,” he said. Yet losing that dream didn’t end his journey.

Now working for Life Rescue, Inc., a Bellingham-based company, he became an industrial safety and emergency services consultant. After the accident, he also earned a degree and other certifications. Today, he’s proud to be part of a whole family in fire service.

“Even before everything happened, Dad was always the safety dad,” said Heather Chadwick, public information and education officer with Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue and one of Howard’s three children. “He was always safety first,” said Chadwick, who was a Sultan High School junior when the blast occurred.

Isaac Howard (center) gives directions during a training session with Snohomish County Fire District 26 in Gold Bar. (Bobbie Lange)

Isaac Howard (center) gives directions during a training session with Snohomish County Fire District 26 in Gold Bar. (Bobbie Lange)

Recalling the explosion, Howard said he was seated on a chair against a metal wall in the trailer, which was manufactured by Fireblast 451, Inc. Purchased jointly by a dozen fire departments, the mobile unit was used to provide experience battling propane blazes, which could be turned off and on from the booth.

Two other firefighters were shielded by equipment Howard said he wasn’t required to wear.

A lawsuit alleged Fireblast negligently manufactured the simulator, according to a 2002 Herald article. Attorney Jeff Donchez is quoted in the article as saying a metal guard shielding the main propane gas valve was removed, possibly allowing “leakage of propane into the trailer.”

“The legal issues took about 10 years to resolve,” said Howard, who didn’t disclose the sum he received. “There were a lot of players. I signed non-disclosures on the settlements,” he said by email.

These days, “I work as much as I want to work,” Howard said. He has recently been logging overnight shifts on an industrial safety job at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes.

Education was key to his current career. He earned an associate of applied science degree in occupational safety and health from Columbia Southern University. At the University of Washington, he got a safety and health construction specialist certificate. Also with UW, he’s been an adjunct instructor at the Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center.

He’s been a wildland firefighter with private companies, and taught at a firefighting academy in the Philippines.

More than ever, firefighting runs in the family.

Heather Chadwick’s husband, Ryan Chadwick, is a captain with Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn.

The Howards’ older daughter, Desiree Harris, worked as a paramedic. Her husband, Travis Harris, is a lieutenant paramedic and firefighter in Graham. Jacob Howard, Heather and Desiree’s younger brother, has been a part-time firefighter with Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue.

“Even my father was a volunteer fire department chaplain in Gold Bar,” Karen Howard said.

Isaac Howard watches a fire blaze during a training session with Snohomish County Fire District 26 in Gold Bar. (Bobby Lange)

Isaac Howard watches a fire blaze during a training session with Snohomish County Fire District 26 in Gold Bar. (Bobby Lange)

Before moving to Washington, Isaac Howard was a photographer in Huntington Beach, California. He worked with advertising and public relations firms.

A year after the accident, he took daughter Heather’s senior pictures after his wife encouraged him to relearn his photo skills using his left eye. He has since traveled to Haiti on a photo assignment with a faith-based nonprofit, and now does fine art photography.

Faced with hard times, Howard said, “you make a choice — either belly up to the bar and become a victim, or you move on.”

Daughter Heather, a star soccer player in Sultan when her father was hurt, was coming back from her brother’s soccer practice that day when her cellphone pinged. It was a horrible message. Her dad had been hurt in a blast. In a waiting room during his hours of surgery at Harborview, the family saw news of the explosion on TV.

After surgeries meant to save both eyes, he was back home when his right eye began bleeding. His wife raced him back to the hospital, where the eye couldn’t be saved.

Heather Chadwick remembers taking her father to see specialists when he couldn’t drive. Her mother, a longtime clerk at the post office in Gold Bar, was still working.

“It was a whirlwind for a long time,” Chadwick said. “It wasn’t a road to get back to where we were, but how are we going to pivot?”

Chadwick went to college, first to Spokane Falls Community College where she ran track and played soccer, then to Central Washington University. She taught high school in Redmond and Monroe before joining Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue. In her role, she gives safety presentations to schools, senior centers and civic groups.

Her dad, she said, always shared this advice: “In an emergency you need to stay calm so you can think.”

“I use that now,” Chadwick said. “I’m really becoming my father.”

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

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