Sudden tragedy, enduring strength

Published December 17, 2006


Willie Knight leans back in his chair and stares in the direction of the Christmas tree. He looks like he could be a victim of a roadside bomb.

His face, scalp and arm are covered with second- and third-degree burns. An index finger is wrapped with bandages.

Despite his injuries, he feels as if he could still clench his left hand into a fist.

But that's impossible. His left arm and hand are gone from just below his shoulder. The stump that remains is covered in gauze.

What he feels is not his missing hand, says Knight, 33, but phantom pain and squeezing sensations.

The accident that took his arm was horrible.

The morning of Oct. 17 started out like most any day.

Knight, an apprentice electrician for Progress Energy, had just talked to his wife Angie on his cell phone. Somebody in a small plane had written "Happy Birthday Pat" in the sky, and they were giggling, wondering who Pat was.

Shortly after 10:30 a.m., Knight climbed into a bucket truck and was lifted high in the air to do maintenance work supervised by an electrician at a substation on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

Then something went wrong.

He was jolted by 13,000 volts of electricity. A manager at a home furnishing store heard him screaming in agony all the way down the street.

A supervisor called Angie.

Get to Tampa General Hospital, he told her. Immediately.

"I was freaking out," said Angie Knight, 29. The couple had been together since she was a teenager and got married five years ago. "My father had to drive me to the hospital."

A half-hour after she got to the emergency room, Willie was wheeled away for a four-hour surgery.

Angie was in shock. Her grandmother, Mona Kinnison, had died of breast cancer at 77 just four months before. And now this?

The next day, the Times reported that, because of the accident, thousands of customers lost power for about two hours. The paper quoted a dentist as saying, "We lost a good dollar amount this morning."

Angie was disgusted - as were friends who brought food to the hospital and helped care for the children.

"Here I didn't know if my husband was going to live or die and they are complaining about money?" Angie said.

Progress Energy is still unsure how the accident happened.

"The investigation is ongoing," said Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's investigation is also still open.

Dreaming, breathing

Knight was put into a medically induced coma for two weeks after the incident.

"The only thing I remember is dreaming about friends and family and growing up," he said.

"He dreamed of his schoolmates," said his mother, Madelyn Knight.

"He talked about the homecoming queen a little too much," his wife said, laughing.

He said he saw his wife's deceased grandmother "as plain as day." It was not a dream, he said.

"She told me to breathe in when they took out the breathing tube," Knight said.

He took her advice, and it went well.

During his five weeks in the hospital, he underwent several surgeries. There were two amputations, the first below his elbow. But the tissue in his arm started dying, so surgeons decided to remove most of the rest of the limb just below his shoulder.

Doctors came close to amputating his right arm as well, but transplanted abdominal muscle to the affected area instead, Willie and Angie said.

"That saved it," Angie said.

Doctors took skin from his thighs and used it to cover his stump.

They left large, angry-looking pink strips on his legs.

He was released from Tampa General two days before Thanksgiving.

Thanking community

One day last week, Knight's children, Caleb, 9, and Alyssa, 8, were bouncing around on the couch, clearly excited about the holidays.

A friend had dropped by to see how Knight was doing.

A nurse arrived to change the bandages on his stump.

One of Knight's favorite hobbies is fishing for sheepshead, mullet and crabs off the Safety Harbor Pier.

"I think I'll be able to relearn how to do that eventually," he said.

Luckily, he is right-handed.

He endures physical therapy three times a week and will eventually be fitted for a prosthesis.

Angie said she has had to "wear my Superwoman mask" to make it through this chapter of her life.

Before the accident, she had been a child care director at the YMCA of the Suncoast.

But she said her bosses gave her job away because she spent so much time with her husband.

They offered her another position, but she said she quit because she felt they should have been more supportive.

Despite their setbacks, the couple said they found strength to get through their tragedy through prayer and their friends.

To thank the community for its outpouring of support, they are hosting a welcome home party from 6 to 11 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Safety Harbor Community Center, 650 Ninth Ave S.

And, because they are surrounded by friends, they're looking forward with optimism, not backward with bitterness.

Last year, they had a bedraggled little Christmas tree Angie called a "sad tree."

This year, friends bought them a new, much nicer tree.

"This is the happiest holiday in a long time," Willie said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.