RISING FROM THE ASHES

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble & Brian Sager

How Russell Ferguson and Melissa Pigue emerged from a devastating home explosion and fire.

In the early morning hours of November 4, 2020, Russell Ferguson was quietly packing the rest of his belongings to catch the 6:30 ferry off island. The longtime chef de cuisine at the Nantucket Golf Club, Ferguson had grand plans for his offseason: restaurant hopping in Philadelphia, visiting family in Alabama and skiing in Jackson Hole. With his truck packed, Ferguson went to fetch his keys and glasses off the table to leave the island for the winter.

Meanwhile upstairs, Melissa Pigue was in a deep sleep. She owned this home on 39 Surfside Road where Ferguson had been staying for the last week or so. The two were friends, so when Ferguson’s seasonal rental was up at the end of October, Pigue opened up her home to help him bridge the time gap until his departure. The owner of Melissa David Salon, Pigue had worked incredibly hard to purchase this property on Nantucket two years earlier. At barely 5:30 in the morning, she slept soundly.

Downstairs, Ferguson padded across the living room, heading for the staircase to bid a final farewell to Pigue when he suddenly heard a strange whistling sound. Walking toward the home’s furnace, the high-pitched whine grew louder and louder until BOOM! The furnace exploded, throwing Ferguson against the wall. The room went up in flames instantly. Ferguson fled out the back door, but then reentered the house to try and rescue Pigue. By that time, the flames had engulfed everything and there was no way to reach her.

Upstairs, the blast had rocked Pigue’s bed and jolted her awake. Scorching pain gripped her arms and scalp. Her home was ablaze. She sprinted to the top of the stairs to discover that the roof had collapsed on top of them, trapping her on the second floor. She leaned over the banister to see an impenetrable wall of flames. Out of options, Pigue ran to the bathroom, then to her bedroom. The smoke was suffocating. She threw open her window for air. That’s when she realized her only way out of the house. Pigue pushed out the screen, crawled on to the roof and rolled off the side, tucking her knees to her chest hoping not to break her ankles when she landed on the deck below. Miraculously, she didn’t break any bones—but her body was in excruciating pain.

First responders—firefighters, EMTs, police—rushed to the scene immediately and swarmed the victims. Ferguson was in critical condition. He had been standing four or five feet from the home’s furnace when it inexplicably exploded. The last thing he remembered was being loaded into the ambulance and having a necklace clipped off his neck. The first responders didn’t think he would survive. Neither did the doctors at Nantucket Cottage Hospital when they rushed him onto a Boston MedFlight. As the helicopter pounded over Nantucket Sound en route to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Russell Ferguson and Melissa Pigue began a long journey. Their lives as they knew them were no more.

“Getting burned is unlike anything you’ve ever imagined,” says Ferguson, sitting in the dining room of the Nantucket Golf Club some seven months since the explosion. Beneath his white chef coat, Ferguson’s arms are dressed in blue compression sleeves. His hands wear protective gloves, with only his finger tips revealing the extent of the damage hidden inside. According to his doctors, nearly half of Ferguson’s body—between 45 and 48 percent—suffered third-degree burns in the accident. The most damage was done to his torso and arms, but his face, ears and feet were also badly burned. He’s undergone ten surgeries in the last seven months, with a half dozen more operations on his hands, eyes, mouth and throat scheduled for this fall. However, the one part of Ferguson that remains completely intact is his spirit.

“Right out of the gates, I wasn’t expected to live, much less get where I am seven months to the day of the accident,” he says. Indeed, Ferguson’s return is nothing short of a miracle. When he arrived at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, his burns were so severe that doctors put him in a medically induced coma because the pain would have been too excruciating for him to withstand. When he awoke from the coma forty days later, Ferguson was unable to walk, move his arms or feed himself. He would need to learn how to do everything all over again. On December 18th, Ferguson was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Clinic in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to begin long, intensive in-patient rehab work. For eight hours a day, five days a week, he underwent grueling physical, occupational, mental and speech therapy.

In the years before the accident, Ferguson lived a life people only dream about. Growing up on a working farm in Alabama, he learned to cook by holding on to his grandmother’s apron. He sharpened those homegrown skills at top kitchens across the country, from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, to the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, to some of the top restaurants in Boston like The Federalist and Eastern Standard. After a stint cooking for Nantucket Island Resorts, Ferguson started jumping onto super yachts as a private chef. The gig took him to the world’s most exotic places—Tahiti, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, Honduras, Belize. He ended up being anchored in the Caribbean for three years where he fell in love with scuba diving and became an instructor. Ferguson eventually found his way back to Nantucket where he landed a job he loved at Nantucket Golf Club. In the spring of 2017, Ferguson’s hometown paper wrote a splashy story on him titled “Living the Life.”

Lying in his hospital bed in the Spaulding Clinic less than a month after the accident, Ferguson couldn’t have been further from that former life. He stared out the window as snow fell from the January sky and felt utterly defeated. He couldn’t walk, shower or do virtually anything for himself. Along with a feeding tube in his stomach, Ferguson had to be spoon-fed by nurses. And then there was the pain – constant and unrelenting – dulled only by heaping doses of pain drugs. It was all wearing on his psyche. Why did I live? he thought to himself. What am I going to do for work? Where am I going to live? What am I going to do? Alone in his room, Ferguson called his mother and then cried himself to sleep.

Russell Ferguson outside the Nantucket Golf Clubhouse.

But the very next morning, he made a critical decision, one that would change the course of his recovery. “Alright, there’s no way around this,” he told himself. “The only way to get through this is straight ahead.” From that moment forward, Ferguson dedicated every bit of himself to his recovery. “Whatever the therapists wanted to try—casts, scar tissue massage, walking, exercises—I said yes. Whatever they tell me to do, I’ll try. Because of that, I’ve been able to slowly heal and put my life back to what is normal.” Today, Ferguson’s life isn’t fully back to normal but it’s remarkably close. After months at Spaulding, he returned to Nantucket in April. Immediately after disembarking the ferry, he drove directly over to the scene of the explosion, the cause of which is still under investigation. Staring through his windshield at this scorched hole in the ground, Ferguson began the mental journey of reclaiming his life on Nantucket. The first major hurdle was being seen in public again. “A lot of people didn’t know what to expect, what I would look like, what I would be like, what I’d be able to do,” he says, “but I’m way ahead of everybody’s predictions.”

Ferguson reconnected with the first responders and expressed his deep gratitude for helping save his life. His recovery has been fueled by family, friends and the broader Nantucket community, which he says has treated him with the kind of love normally reserved for a family member. “The reason I’m alive is because of the energy they give me,” he says. One of the greatest forms of support has come from within the island’s culinary community. Today, whenever Ferguson is enjoying a meal at one of the island’s restaurants, a chef inevitably emerges from the kitchen to wrap him up in a bear hug.

Returning to his own kitchen at the Nantucket Golf Club was the next major hurdle. “Even before the accident, I always felt a sense of community with the club and the members,” Ferguson says. “But at every step along the way since the accident, they said, ‘Come back when you can, however you can. You’re always welcome here.’ Tommy B., Cathy, all the managing team here just made me feel like everything was normal.” To the amazement of staff and members alike, Ferguson was back in the kitchen for opening day and hasn’t missed a shift since.

A commercial kitchen is perhaps one of the last places a severe burn victim might want to spend his time. Working twelve to sixteen hour days, Ferguson winces at the heat coming off boiling pots and scalding skillets. Whether he’s in the kitchen or not, his pain hovers constantly around a five, often more but rarely less. He’s still regaining his fine motor skills to make precise knife cuts when butchering meats or fileting fish. His strength is also half of what it used to be, and he often needs help lifting heavy pots or opening stubborn jars. Still Ferguson’s drive remains undeterred.

“This is a common attribute to people who have almost lost their life,” he explains. “When you come back, you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just being able to come and do anything partially. My goal was to get back to 100 percent of what I could do. Right now, I’m at probably 80 percent.” Sticking to the pledge he made all those months ago in that hospital bed, Ferguson is committed to a rigorous recovery regimen that combines physical therapy, yoga and regular visits to a chiropractor, therapist and a team of doctors in both Boston and Nantucket.

“I haven’t looked back,” he says. “Every day is better. Every week is better. Every sort of milestone and accomplishment that I get just gives me more energy to not stop. Some people say, ‘You need to rest.’ But the fight and determination and the drive that I have in me is what’s kept me alive.” Today that drive extends beyond himself. Ferguson hopes his story can help others persevere through insurmountable odds. He’s part of a support group called Burn Survivors of New England, where he connects with others who have been through similar unimaginable traumas. Armed with optimism, Ferguson proves that there is life after the fire. “I want to give people hope, to show them that they can get through this,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to need to fight every single day. But if you fight, you can do it.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________

While Ferguson fought for his life in those early days at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Melissa Pigue began her own long, painful road to recovery. Her arms, especially her right arm, suffered the most severe burns, however her scalp, back, left side of her chest and legs were also significantly impacted. The most concerning burns were to her right hand, which Pigue relied on for her livelihood as a hairdresser. “After getting a skin graft, when they removed the cast and the staples, I couldn’t move my hand,” Pigue recalls. “I thought my career was over.”

Melissa Pigue outside her salon wearing a hat, which miraculously survived the fire.

But as time would tell, Pigue possessed an almost superhuman ability to heal. Surgeons had originally planned to perform two separate skin grafts, one on the front side of her body and one on the back, but by the time she was ready for the second surgery, the burns on her back had already healed themselves. “I wish I could bottle your DNA,” the surgeon told her. “I’ve never seen anyone heal so fast.” Her body’s resiliency was bolstered by her mindset. “I didn’t want to admit that I was as hurt as I was because I had worked my butt off for my life on Nantucket—my home and my salon—and I didn’t want to watch it unravel,” Pigue says. “It helped that I’m a very stubborn person.” Doctors had initially told Pigue that she needed to be in the hospital for two months, but she ended up leaving after just twenty-three days.

While her physical wounds healed, Pigue also attended to her emotional scars. She grappled with the psychological trauma of narrowly escaping with her life and watching all her worldly possessions—family photos, heirloom jewelry, a home she worked so hard to buy—be consumed by the fire. As someone who worked in the beauty industry, she had to come to terms with the burns now scattered across her body. Then there were the endless questions of why this happened and what she was going to do with her life next. “I could definitely see how a burn victim could go down a very dark path without the support system I had,” she says. “I have the best family and friends in the world who kept me really positive.”

Jasmine Cocchiola was the first friend by Pigue’s bedside in Boston the day after the accident. From that point forward, Jasmine and her husband Mark became so integral to her recovery that Pigue started calling them “Maw” and “Paw.” Cocchiola launched a GoFundMe for Pigue and Ferguson, which was quickly shared throughout the island community and eventually generated nearly $170,000 for their recovery. After Pigue spent the winter recovering with her parents in Florida, Cocchiola traveled down to help her move back up to Nantucket. “Where am I going to live?” she lamented to Cocchiola as they packed, to which her friend responded, “Don’t worry, Paw is going to build you a better house.” In the meantime, Pigue would live with them.

Pigue’s return to Nantucket illustrated the island’s ability to rally around one of its own. Local business owners Beth English of Current Vintage and Julie Biondi of The Lovely organized a gift drive with other small business owners and put together a grand welcome-home basket. Lindsay Walsh of RJ Miller Salon organized a separate collection among all of Pigue’s hairdresser colleagues on the island. “I was so apprehensive to return to the island, but when I walked into that room with all those gifts, I just burst into tears,” Pigue recalls. “I felt so happy and welcomed back.”

The generosity continued with the replacement of her home. With the encouragement of Mark Cocchiola and his company Tradewinds Custom Building, Pigue reached out to Kris Megna of Dreamline Modular Homes. Megna had heard about Pigue’s story and said he would move mountains to get her into a new home by the summer. “He’s a living saint,” Pigue says of Megna. “He fast-tracked the project, cut costs where he could. I feel like I’ll never be able to repay that kind of kindness. It’s uplifting to know that there are people out there willing to help someone just out of the kindness of their heart.” This kindness continued as throngs of local builders, architects, designers, town officials and volunteers converged on the home project, determined to see Pigue in the new house within a year of the explosion.

With her new home underway, Pigue threw herself back into work. As she learned recovering with her family in Florida, cutting hair proved to be the perfect form of physical therapy for her burned hand. At first, she didn’t have the strength or mobility to hold a coffee mug or cut her own food. But after months of rigorous exercises, she began cutting her parents’ and siblings’ hair at home. By the time she returned to the island, Pigue was confident in her abilities. Thanks to her employee Lane Corbett, who ran the business single- handedly while she was gone, Pigue was able to hit the ground running when she returned to her shop on Washington Street. In so many ways, Melissa David Salon represented Pigue’s stake in the ground here on Nantucket. After first discovering the island in 2010, Pigue cut hair seasonally here until she opened her salon with her brother in 2017. The very next year, she bought her home on the island and became a full-time resident.

Central to Pigue’s journey today is trying to fully convey her gratitude to everyone involved in her recovery. From the first responder who com- forted her in the ambulance, to the real estate agent friend who picked up her family in Boston and put them up in an Airbnb while she was in the hospital, to the five-year-old island resident who contributed $25 to her GoFundMe after seeing the aftermath of the fire, Pigue holds on to these stories as touchstones of strength and gratitude. “I just want the community to know how I sincerely appreciate everything everyone has done for me,” she says. “Although I was very aware that the little island we call home was full of amazing hard- working people that were always willing to help anyone in need, nothing prepared me for how deep that sense of community went.”

Written By
More from Robert Cocuzzo

JUST HISTORY

The Museum of African American History champions critical chapters in Nantucket’s history....
Read More