North Carolina boy fights unimaginable pain after at-home science experiment goes horribly wrong

The 12-year-old was working with fool’s gold and isopropyl alcohol on a Bunsen burner when a freak accident occurred, causing severe burns throughout his upper body

HIGHLANDS, N.C. – From a young age, 12-year-old Barrett McKim always loved to learn, especially in science.

Whether reading or watching YouTube videos on the subject, his adoration continued to grow and is something he’s had a passion for his whole life.

While most boys his age might run around the backyard with a football, it’s not uncommon to witness Barrett dancing around the house with chemistry goggles, carrying out the latest experiment he just studied.

The second born in a family of five siblings, Barrett is homeschooled in classical-style education in his tiny town of Highlands in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Aside from his gentle and loving-type personality, he's extremely cautious, very responsible and a forward thinker, his father said.

"That’s just a part of his personality," said Barrett’s father, Kyle McKim. "He’s the one, probably more than any of our kids, that’s anticipating or looking out for his younger brothers because they’re too close to the pond or the edge of the deck."

However, what happened next is something more of a freak accident than careless learning. 

June 23: Day of explosion

The morning started like most days in the McKim house. 

Kyle McKim was away at work about 12 minutes from the family home, and the kids were all home with their mother on their summer break. Even though school was out, Barrett still wanted to learn. He decided to perform a science experiment in the front room of the home. 

"He’s worked with different rocks and minerals a lot and loves heating different ones up," McKim said.

On this particular day, Barrett was working with some fool’s gold and testing things he had read which would cause it to spark and change colors.

"This was not a classroom accident. This was just Barrett doing his own thing," McKim said.

While the family is unsure how the explosion happened, they do know that Barrett was using isopropyl alcohol as an accelerant to get some additional heat.

"We don’t know if that was sparked by one of the sparks from the rocks or something with the Bunsen burner," McKim said. "We’ve looked at the lighter which seems like maybe it had a faulty connection. We don’t really know what ignited the accident, but it exploded up into his face and is what created the burn."

When he first got to the hospital, Barrett was burnt on what doctors initially thought was 40% of his body. As often happens with an accelerant, the body continues to burn. 

Doctors now said he has burns on 50% of his body; 20% are third-degree burns, and 30% are second-degree burns. He is battling burns primarily on his lower face, neck, entire front torso, arms, hands, shoulders and the length of his thighs to his knees. 

"We feel very grateful that he had the goggles on for this accident because it did protect some of his face and certainly his eyes," McKim said.

‘Asking if he’s going to die’

When the explosion happened, it threw the accelerant and fire onto Barrett, who was, unfortunately, not wearing a lab coat but a synthetic shirt – creating even more of an issue as it went into flames.

Fortunately, his mother was in an adjacent room and heard the explosion.

"Barrett runs out of the room, and he’s on fire. My wife was burnt, some on her hands as well, trying to just get the fire out and remove the shirt from Barrett," McKim said.

She ultimately succeeded in the effort by getting him to the sink and soaking him with water.

Barrett's mother sustained terrible burns on both hands but managed to save her son's life. She frantically called 911 and continued to spray water on Barrett until help arrived. 

"When I got there, she was still dousing him with water on the floor and just trying to keep things cool, moist and wet with cold water," McKim said. "From the very time I came into the house, when he was screaming in pain, he wanted me to tell him the truth … asking if he’s going to die," McKim said.

Paramedics rushed Barrett to a county soccer field about four miles down the road. From there, an air flight helicopter would take him to the JMS Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. 

The long road to recovery

The pain Barrett feels is an exhausting battle. His dad said he’s healing well, but there’s a lot of recovery ahead. 

"Most likely it will be a year or so before Barrett is back into the swing of things," McKim said. "Even with the healing of the skin, there’s just a whole other dynamic of the movement and stretching and the physical therapy that is of a real focus as well."

Days inside the burn center have turned into weeks. And soon, weeks will transition to months. 

"Initially, I was told a month just because of the ongoing series of surgeries and his recovery. And this morning, for the first time, I heard that it could be a month to two months," McKim said.

For parents, there’s nothing worse than seeing their child in excruciating pain.

"I know I’ve never experienced it to this level. And you want nothing more than to take that on yourself or fix it. You feel somewhat helpless," McKim said.

The soon-to-be teenager has been surrounded by family during his healing process, something everyone is learning as they witness Barrett’s trauma.

"Barrett has had now three different surgeries since we’ve been here. He most likely will have to have several, several more," McKim said.

Technology in burn recovery has progressed over the years with many tools to help in the healing process. Cadaver skin grafts have been placed on Barrett temporarily, and doctors already see new skin. 

"Doctors really believe that his face will heal completely without graphs. And that’s a real blessing," McKim said.

Barrett is pushed daily to sit up and walk as much as possible. But with that, pain is also created. 

"To try to overcome that and force himself still to do it is really where a lot of our battle is. And he’s doing well, but it’s hard to watch," McKim said.

From a nutrient standpoint, Barrett also suffered burns in his mouth and can’t obtain needed calories, so doctors placed a feeding tube up his nose.

Power of prayer

The McKims said they are overwhelmed by all the calls, texts and letters of support.

"As a family, we’re Christians, and without that, I don’t know how we would have made it through this," McKim said. 

GoFundMe has raised more than $72,000 to help Barrett’s family. It also serves as a daily blog that family members use to update the world on his recovery. 

Comments are also posted praising Barrett for practicing and perfecting the art of science. Others are inspired by his story, pushing him never to stop learning and growing his knowledge for the thing he’s most passionate about – science.

"As horrible as this situation is, we have felt the prayers and those lifting Barrett up and certainly feel that the Lord is working in this for our good and for Barrett," McKim said.


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