Albert Gallatin teacher bounces back from injuries sustained in house fire
George Franks III jogged down a flight of stairs in Albert Gallatin North Middle School, chatting with students along the way on a recent school day.
The physical education teacher led a group of sixth-graders in floor exercises, then tossed them soccer balls from the gym's sideline.
“If the ball is getting away from you, you are going too fast. Try to control it,” shouted Franks, 32,then blowing his whistle.
What makes those everyday activities extraordinary is that Franks returned to school in August, nine months after a grease fire at his Masontown home burned nearly 70 percent of his body.
Compression garments on his legs and left arm and right hand are the only visible evidence of his injuries in class.
On Jan. 11, Franks had put a pot containing oil on his stove, intending to saute chicken, and changed into a pair of shorts.
He smelled something, but saw nothing burning on the stove. Seconds later, the pot “exploded.”
“There were flames to the ceiling,” he said.
Franks tried to run but slipped and fell in the oil on the floor.
“My right arm and back are the only parts of me not burned. My feet were hurt the worst,” he said.
Franks said his family was told he might not survive. Doctors discussed possible amputation of his feet or legs.
Through 54 days in UPMC Mercy, six major surgeries, and a procedure to remove damaged tissue that had him begging for more medication, Franks persevered.
He underwent skin grafts, and progressed from a wheelchair to a cane in months.
“I pushed myself. I didn't sit around. It happened. I thought, what can I do to get better?” he said.
Franks ignored predictions that he might not return to teaching for years.
“I told them, ‘I'll be back in the fall.' I did it,” he said. “I'm not 100 percent — about 80 percent, I'd say.”
Franks still receives physical therapy or massage laser treatment five days a week.
“I've been through it all. I'm living, I can't complain. I keep pushing through the pain. I've got a good attitude,” he said.
Franks credited his neighbor, Don Albani, and Albani's daughter, Katelynn, for helping him after the fire.
“I'll remember that night until I die,” Albani said.
Franks pounded on his door, saying his house was on fire, Albani said.
Not realizing the extent of Franks' injuries, Albani raced across the street to the smoke-filled house and threw wet towels on the flames in the kitchen.
His daughter called 911.
“She said, ‘He's in bad shape, Dad,' ” Albani recalled.
Albani, who has worked on coal mine union safety issues, tried to calm Franks and kept him from putting a blanket over his burns.
“I was worried about infection,” he said. “I was watching the skin roll off his legs like candle wax. I was just praying.”
When rescue crews arrived, Albani said he urged them to call for a helicopter and take Franks to a hospital with a burn unit.
“I didn't think time was on his side,” he said.
Franks said his doctors told him his youth and good health aided his recovery.
“I couldn't bend down and touch my toes two months ago. Now I can do a full squat,” he said.
His house has been repaired, and “I still get in the kitchen and cook,” Franks said.
Friends, colleagues and students sent cards and visited him while he recuperated.
“Georgie is beloved here, there is no doubt about it. He's a great role model and caring and energetic,” Principal Randy Wilson said. “He's a miracle, really, from the injuries that he sustained.”
On the last day of class in June, Franks walked unaided into the school.
“The students loved it,” he said.
Sixth-grade student Brittany Hull said she had heard her teacher had been burned. Her eyes widened as she learned the extent of his injuries.
Franks can be a “fun” teacher. “He lets us pick what we want to do sometimes. He's tough, but he's nice,” she said.
Albani said he considers Franks a good friend, as well as a neighbor.
“I see him every day. I try to tell him, ‘You got a second chance, boy. You better live life to the fullest,' ” he said.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.