By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
*Editor's Note: James Johnson is a pseudonym.
January was a rough stretch for James Johnson*. In the span of a few cold, miserable weeks, the Sikeston resident turned 26, and lost his $9-an-hour roofing job. To cap it off, he got a new tattoo on his shoulder that he regretted almost immediately: the Monopoly man holding the components of a miniature meth lab — a lithium battery, a blowtorch and a Mason jar filled with Sudafed tablets and anhydrous ammonia.
February wasn't off to a great start, either. It was snowing in southeast Missouri, and he had on just a T-shirt and a baseball cap, worn backward and pulled down to his eyebrows, to warm his wiry, five-foot-eight-inch frame. In a rush to leave the house, he forgot his winter coat. "I'd been eating Xanax that night," he notes, "so I wasn't in the right state of mind anyway."
The Chevy Blazer's heater, at least, kept him warm in the backseat as it cruised the back roads just after 3 a.m. One of Johnson's buddies rode shotgun; a new acquaintance was behind the wheel. The plan was to make a small batch of meth, smoke a little himself and give the rest to his friends to sell. Johnson had spent nearly half of the previous nine years in prison for a variety of minor, meth-related offenses. Out on parole, he'd managed to stay clean for several months. Then he got laid off and, as he says, started "cookin' to survive, I guess, basically."
Emptying all but the last few sips from a liter of Aquafina, he peeled off the outer layers of a lithium battery and crushed two packets' worth of Sudafed. He sprayed starting fluid into the plastic bottle and added the final few ingredients, including a few tablets of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Then he commenced to shake the container like a maraca.
As he shook, gases produced by the chemical reaction caused the plastic bottle to expand. Johnson loosened the cap to relieve the pressure. The last thing he recalls seeing that night was the sparks that flared up from the innards of the lithium battery as it bobbed in the murky slush of chemicals and water.
Then the bottle exploded in his face.
"The sparks shot up in the bottle three times — like a Roman candle: poof, poof, poof," Johnson recounts. "I was told if it catches on fire, you got to shake it out. Don't throw it. Shake it out. I tried to shake it out, and it blew up on me. I was engulfed in flames."
When he twisted the cap, enough oxygen evidently seeped in to initiate combustion: The sparks ignited the ether vapors from the starting fluid that were still floating around the cab of the Blazer, scalding his entire upper body, as well as the faces of his companions, who bailed out the front doors of the SUV as it skidded to a stop. With his clothes ablaze, Johnson jumped through the car's rear window and rolled on the snowy asphalt until he was extinguished.
After ditching the remains of the mini meth lab on the side of the road, his friends loaded Johnson back into the car and drove him to his cousin's house. A cocktail of toxic chemicals continued to slowly eat away at the exposed flesh where his coat should have been. His eyes were coated in a milky white film, his face and arms grotesquely swollen.
His cousin dialed 911. The operator asked how the accident happened. Johnson screamed in the background, "It was a fuckin' meth lab!" As a consequence, the paramedics who responded parked their ambulance a half mile down the road and refused to come any closer until the region's drug task force arrived. The police eventually showed up, burned what was left of Johnson's tainted clothing and told the firemen on the scene to rinse him off before admitting him to the local hospital.
"They squirted him with a fire hose," says his sister. "He was skinless. He didn't have no meat on him after that."
The silence in the burn unit at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur is, for want of a better word, painful. Sounds — the hum of fluorescent lighting, the beeping of medical equipment, the typing and chitchat of the four on-duty nurses — echo off the linoleum floor in the main hallway, but from the nine patients' rooms comes only stillness. Glass walls form airtight seals that keep germs out and prevent the occupants' open wounds from becoming infected beneath their mummy-like layers of gauze.
Sixteen days after his meth-making misadventure, Johnson awoke from a medically induced coma in one of these silent, sterile vaults and found himself being taken off life support. He made a lot of noise.
"He was wild," his sister recalls. "He was incoherent, and he didn't understand anything that was going on around him. You could tell he was scared. He used the f-word a whole lot. He had tried to climb out of bed, so they had him in restraints. We took them off, and he started swinging his arms and screaming like he was still on fire."