Detroit native Delbert McCoy remembers life milestones very well. The day he met his first wife, Yvonne: a Saturday in August of 1965. The first time he met his current finance, Renée: a family reunion in June of 1992. The day his mother passed away: Aug. 19, 1988.
The most vivid date in McCoy’s mind, however, is Jan. 12, 1969. On that day, he was robbed of his youth, virility and dreams.
At age 19, McCoy was already married to Yvonne and was supporting two daughters, Monique and Kim. He worked at the Chrysler Truck Plant in Warren and the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Plant across the street. Despite his relative youth, McCoy was a union representative at the Chrysler plant, often settling disputes between workers and management. With two steady paychecks coming in, he was able to provide a stable home for his family.
“Everything was what you’d want. Everything was going good,” he says.
On that winter’s night in 1969, McCoy’s life was turned upside down in a matter of minutes. Having that night off work, he made plans to meet some friends at the Soul Expression disco. The club, located at Dexter and Rochester on Detroit’s west side, was alcohol and drug free, and largely attracted teenagers. Patrons entered from the ground level, climbed a set of wooden stairs and paid $1 to enter.
Having arrived before his friends, McCoy stood at the end of the line in the stairwell. Shortly after he arrived, a man later identified as Ronald Robinson opened the front door and threw a glass bottle inside. Just as McCoy realized the vestibule had been doused with gasoline, another man, identified as Eugene Kelley, threw a match inside. The staircase and club entrance were immediately engulfed in flames.
McCoy, realizing the fire had reached his legs, made a dash for the top of the stairs. His shoes were wet with gasoline, and he slipped into the fiery pit at the bottom of the stairs. Flames enveloped his body, but he managed to ascend the steps just before they collapsed. A man threw a coat over him. He was transported to Detroit General Hospital, where he was given little chance for survival.
McCoy would spend much of the next three years in hospitals, attempting to recover from burns to more than 85 percent of his body. To date, he has undergone 108 separate surgeries, including massive skin grafts, two kidney operations, and facial reconstruction. A chemical application procedure made it possible for him to close his eyes. Additional reconstructive work is planned for his eyes, ears and facial skin.
Unable to return to the auto plants, McCoy worked at his father’s party store, making change for customers. A math whiz from early on, he also helped manage the business affairs. Social Security disability was his main source of income for the years to come.
In 1989, he enrolled in a correspondence program for handicapped people through Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He graduated in 1994 with a degree in marketing. Today, McCoy is 53 and lives in Southfield with his fiancee, Renée, and her children, Bill, 20; Marcus, 17; and Nicole, 15.
During a stint at the Ann Arbor Burn Center, doctors asked McCoy to see a man with comparatively minor burns to his legs and chest. The man, who also supported a family, was considerably less accepting of his plight.
“I was telling him he was being selfish. I said, ‘My burns are all over my body. You can’t quit on your family like that,’” McCoy says. “He began to accept what happened. He came out of that dark shed he was in.”
He later counseled cancer patients when his mother was an inpatient at the Providence Southfield Hospital cancer wing.
“I just tell them you can’t get too depressed about nothing that goes on in your life. You have to look ahead,” he says. “I always tell people to look up in life, not down. We all go through trials and tribulations in life. Life is precious. Miracles happen. I’m one of them.”
Napoleon Ross, a lifelong friend, motivated Delbert to work with kids at the local YMCA. Ross and McCoy counseled inner-city youth, encouraging them to avoid lives of crime and to get an education.
“He’s experienced a great deal. He’s experienced something that someone may never come near again,” Ross says. “Cause and effect: It took the accident in a positive way to make him a lot more involved in our future around us, which is our young people.”
In the years that followed, McCoy began counseling and tutoring his daughters, nieces, nephews and their friends. He created flash cards to help them with spelling, and demonstrated mathematical shorthand methods. Monique, now 34, earned a law degree from Wayne State University, and is a lawyer for the City of Detroit. Kim, 33, earned an accounting degree from Wayne State, and works as an accountant for the city.
Fred McCoy, Delbert’s nephew, who had early trouble in school, benefited from his uncle’s tutelage.
“I had a hard time with learning during my early years and Delbert would always get on me and help with spelling words, math. He was really supportive of me and really helped me make it through,” Fred McCoy said.
Delbert convinced Fred to enroll in college, and he went on to earn a degree in human resources management from Michigan State University; he is currently working toward an MBA.
“All through the years and seeing everything that he’d been through, seeing his age, he decided to go back and pursue his college degree,” Fred McCoy says. “I decided that if he could do it and he could have the will and discipline to do it that way, everyone could have that in life. That’s when I decided to go to college.”
Delbert began selling candy outside storefronts about nine years ago to help cover what insurance termed “cosmetic surgery.” In so doing, he not only helped cover multiple surgeries, but found comfort in sharing his story with patrons.
“I was selling candy and people used to ask me about what happened and how I inspired them by coming out and not closing myself in. So many people was coming to me telling me how I inspired them,” he says.
In 1994, McCoy reunited with Tim Sheard — an orderly and, more recently, author, who attended to McCoy during his stay at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. Sheard had written an article titled “Albert and the Angels” for a Detroit daily newspaper based on McCoy’s experience. Sheard says he changed the name of the article because he was unsure if McCoy was alive.
“There’s a very sweet story about a moment when Delbert came out of surgery and he was a little delirious from the anesthesia. He thought he had died and gone to heaven,” Sheard says. “He turned to me and he said, ‘Call my mom and tell her I had died and gone to the angels.’”
After realizing the article was about him, McCoy called the newspaper, which in turn, reunited the two old friends. During the next couple years, the duo hashed out plans to write McCoy’s story. Sheard, then working as a nurse in Brooklyn, flew to Detroit and compiled several hours of taped interviews with McCoy and his family.
McCoy and Sheard took about two years to complete the manuscript, and ultimately titled the book, The Fire in My Soul.
“I structured it like a crime story,” Sheard says. “I think it makes it a more compelling read. Delbert and I were lucky to find each other because we are ideal partners.
“Delbert has a story that is frightening, funny, inspiring, compelling and I’m a writer. I’m always looking for great stories that grab a reader. This is a great story.”
The Fire in My Soul was published in July by Seaburn Publishing Group, a small company based in Queens, N.Y. Sam Onwuchekwa, a native of Nigeria and head of Seaburn, said McCoy’s book reflects a rare appreciation for American life.
“Having read the story I was very moved by his tenacity and his endurance,” Onwuchekwa says. “… And knowing how much he has suffered, and knowing that we live in a society where young people don’t appreciate the greatness of this country, and seeing someone that does appreciate it, motivated me personally.”
Since the book has been published, McCoy has made two appearances in New York, including a presentation at State University Hospital in Brooklyn. He addressed a forum of nurses and doctors on issues relating to “unbelievable pain and fear” experienced by burn victims.
“I told them that it relaxes the patients suffering that kind of pain when a doctor or nurse comes in, touches the forehead, tells a joke, a kind word,” he said. “As you get into it [speaking], everything is coming from the heart. You get comfortable with it. The thought of helping somebody comes over you.”
An ongoing series of metro Detroit book signings has followed. Seaburn plans a speaking engagement tour of schools and hospitals across the country. The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors wants to sponsor McCoy to counsel burn victims.
“I think I need to go do this because I think this is something that needs to be done,” McCoy says. “I wouldn’t want to leave this earth without telling people [burn victims] how they can deal with their situation and how they can make themselves a normal person.”Chris Behnan is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]