Memories of a long-ago fire forge new friendship

It was the morning of March 13, 1969, and Johnnie Robinson, age 4, was playing baby doll dress-up with her two older sisters in the backyard of their Whitney Avenue home in Algiers. Each of them had a slice of buttered bread to eat. Johnnie was wearing her nightgown, but since the weather was a bit chilly that morning, she ran back inside to warm herself up.
  
Johnnie stood with her back to the space heater, and unfortunately, that’s when basic chemistry took over. The open flame from the space heater ignited the lower back of her nightgown, and now Johnnie was in real trouble.
 
“My gown was flaming and flaming,” Johnnie, now 52, said last week at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center, where she works as a certified nursing assistant.
 
Without knowing what to do, Johnnie bolted out of the front door, screaming. By now, her back was a ball of flames.
 
A postman, Alvin Nicholas, happened to be delivering mail down the block, and he rushed over and threw his uniform jacket over Johnnie and rolled her on the ground to put out the flames. A neighbor across the street, John Buelna, heard Johnnie’s shrieks and sprinted over with a wool blanket to wrap it around her body and prevent her from going into shock.
 
Buelna, an off-duty Mississippi River Bridge policeman, scooped up Johnnie and ran down the block with her in his arms to L.B. Landry High School, where he spotted two New Orleans police officers, who called for an emergency medical unit.
 
For the next 2 1/2 months, Johnnie remained at Charity Hospital undergoing a series of ice baths, painful body scrubs and skin grafts. The fire had burned one-third of her body.

“They scrubbed me and scrubbed me, and the tub was halfway full of blood,” Johnnie said. “I had tubes in my neck. My momma said they ‘lost’ me three times. I was an inch away from swallowing the flames.”

Johnnie had to endure so many skin-graft surgeries – taking good skin from her legs and stitching it on her back – that she had to learn to walk all over again because her legs were in such pain. She stood in front of heat lamps to help her skin grow back.

“It was so bad I used to sit in the corner and pull my hair out and chew on it and spit it out,” Johnnie said.

The resulting scars were more than physical. When Johnnie got older, especially as a teen, she wore long-sleeved blouses to school, buttoned to the top of the neck, to help cover her scarring. She got teased, a lot.

“All they would do is stare at me instead of asking me what happened,” Johnnie said. “They used to tell stories that I went back inside my house to save a cat. They used to call me names. I used to fight them.”

The childhood experience was so traumatic that even as an adult, whenever Johnnie cooked dinner, she would stand at the side of the stove, almost like an unwilling participant, holding a spatula at arm’s length away from the burner.


“Coming up, I was afraid to cook,” she said. “I was petrified by fire. I never stood in front of my stove. It’s not as bad now as it was, but even now, fire does something to me.”

Johnnie’s family’s house caught fire not long after her accident, and they had to move. But during the Nomtoc parade every Mardi Gras, Johnnie would return to her old neighborhood and knock on the door across the street looking for “Mr. Johnny,” one of the only white residents on the block, who had wrapped her in his arms that day.

“I used to ask, ‘Is Mr. Johnny home?’ and sometimes Mr. Johnny would come to the door, and sometimes his wife did,” Johnnie said. “I would tell him, ‘Mr. Johnny, I love you!’ and then I would run back across the street.”

But, over the years, they lost track of each other. John Buelna died in 1991. Johnnie lived in another part of Algiers.

That was that.

In September 2009, Johnnie joined the staff of Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center as a certified nursing assistant. Three years later, in 2012, Ann Pugh-Funck moved in as a resident. Ann lived in neighborhood “A”; Johnnie worked in neighborhood “C.”

One day, Johnnie rotated over to neighborhood “A” and began helping with Ann’s care.

After a few days, Ann became curious about Johnnie’s name. She hadn’t heard of too many women being named Johnnie.

Ann’s father, a man named John, had told her about a girl named Johnnie who had grown up in Algiers. The man had told his daughter he had always wondered what had happened to her.

“I asked her, ‘Johnnie, is that really your name?’” Pugh-Funck said. “And she said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Are you from Algiers?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Did you live on Whitney Avenue?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘In the 1100 block?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And I asked, ‘Were you in a fire?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ And she told me, ‘A man named Johnny rescued me.’”

That’s when Pugh-Funck told Johnnie: “That was Johnny. He was my father.”

“And I am that little girl,” Johnnie said.

Then Johnnie pulled back the sleeves on her arms and pulled up the back of her shirt.

“I couldn’t say anything but ‘Oh, my God,” Ann, now 72, said. “We were always wondering where that little girl was.”

“Well,” Johnnie said, “that little girl speaking to you now is that little girl, and now I’m taking care of you.”

After the floodgates opened and the tears finally stopped, the memory of what drew the two women together 48 years ago – a man named Johnny – has forged a bond of sisters.

“There is no one who is going to come between me and Miss Ann’s relationship,” Johnnie said. “If there’s anything she needs, she just has to let me know. Now it’s my time to take care of her. It’s a beautiful feeling to know that I’m working with Mr. Johnny’s daughter, the man who saved my life. It’s all by the grace of God.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org

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