What started out as a relaxing dinner with family and friends, quickly became the most terrifying night of Hana’s life. She would start the day as Hana Engel, a woman reunited with her loved ones, and end it in the public eye as the girl on fire. We got the chance to sit down with Hana, hear her story, and hear about what she’s made of the most traumatic night of her life.
May 1, 2018, Hana and boyfriend Jake returned to Canada after his professional hockey season. “We were making rounds catching up with friends that we hadn’t seen all year,” says Hana. The night of May 9th was another reunion with good friends, good food, and the most relaxing vibe. Hana and friends were sitting around the table, warm fire-lit centrepiece glowing, and telling their best stories from their year apart.
Out of nowhere, “My friend went inside and came back out with a bottle of gas,” says Hana. “So quickly, with no time to say anything, she poured the gas onto the fire causing an explosion. The stream of gas caught, which lit the bottle on fire. Out of instinct, she threw the bottle and it covered me in gas.”
“All of the sudden, I felt a wave of heat hit me. It was the fire starting to engulf my body.”
“It started from my arms, but my shirt was quickly lit on fire as well. It just spread so fast. The screams of my boyfriend were so loud, by the time I had run to the grass to stop drop and roll, neighbours had already hopped the fence in panic. While everyone froze, my boyfriend acted quickly and ran to my rescue,” Hana describes. “He attempted to smother the flames with his own body, but luckily he remembered that we’d just filled our dogs water bowl. Yelling to our friend, they grabbed it and splashed it on my face, saving it from severe damage.”
She adds, “It was a really hectic and terrifying night and the details will never leave my mind.”
Hana’s aunt passed away years ago in a fire, so the scariest part of the incident for her was thinking that she was going to die. “All I was thinking was, I’m going to die…if it’s not right now it will be later in the hospital,” Hana recalls. “I was scared that I would never see my family again. I was scared that they were going to feel guilty. I felt like I was losing control over my life, and it was both painful and terrifying.”
Even though Hana says she stays hopeful and doing much better, she also acknowledges that she’s still recovering. “I have bad days,” she admits, “days when I look at myself and break down. My body will never be the same as before, and sometimes that’s hard to swallow.”
But Hana spends every day fighting for her own recovery and she doesn’t do it alone. “I am in control of my recovery,” she insists, “but my strength comes from the people around me. If I’m not strong my family and loved ones won’t be either.” She knows in absolute terms that a strong support network is key to anyone in recovery from physical and emotional trauma.
While it would be easy to let this experience destroy her, Hana chooses to learn and move forward. “My biggest lesson? I need to love myself a little harder. I remember waking up from my coma after three weeks, and I didn’t know if my face would ever heal. I looked at old photos and prayed I would get my face back. Even if I had a scar running down the centre of my face, I would be happy. It was that bad.”
And as her face started to heal, Hana began to feel a little more like herself. “I began to recognize myself again,” she says, “and I promised to never complain about myself again. I am perfect and nothing could ever take the love I have for myself away from me. It is my strongest power. If you think positive, the outcome will be positive. I guarantee it.”
Hana faced her trauma head on, deciding to share her advice with others experiencing trauma. “People always told me to ‘be patient’ and even though I was not very good at following it, it is definitely my best advice. Instead of wondering why you are so lucky, tell yourself why you are actually really lucky.” In other words, count your blessings, know what you have to be grateful for.
And what is the partner to patience in recovery? Perseverance. Indomitable spirit, which Hana possesses in spades. “You also need to get up and do what you can, no matter how hard it is, because any win is a win. Big or small, it’s still a step towards recovery. I couldn’t even lift my arms over my head, but I got there little by little. I look back on all the moments where at the time I felt like I wasn’t moving forward, and remembered that every step, even the tiny ones, bring you forward.”
How has this shaped who Hana is now? “After all this I am tougher and I care even less what people think of me. My left arm was supposed to be amputated, all I thought about [at the time] was all the stares I’d get. Burnt and without an arm. But I’m a survivor. I made it through something that not everyone makes it through, and I’m going to wear every scar with pride.
Scars represent strength not weakness.
As long as my family and loved ones are healthy and happy, that’s all that matters,” says Hana with a firmness that means she walks her talk. “Nothing in life is more important than the people who make you smile. They are there for you when you need comfort and strength. Nothing else in this life is worth stress.”
We’d like to thank Hana for talking with us at Unsinkable and for transforming her experience (and identity) from being the girl who got lit on fire into being a woman on fire: burning bright in life, love, and all that truly matters. Thank you for sharing your story and your light, Hana.