Firefighter learns to work after being stabbed in the eye on a call

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- When you join the ranks of the Houston Fire Department, you also know the dangers.

"We fear the red car," Melanie Willingham said. "That red car that pulls up to tell you bad news."

Sometimes it's the most unexpected calls that change lives forever.

"You always think it's going to be the big fires that are going to get you or do the most damage, but we tend to forget it's the little ones that can sneak up and get us," Cpt. Kenny Willingham said.

ABC13 talked with Captain Kenny Willingham in Sealy, where his career began. On January 6, he was overseeing a call from his post at HFD Station 75 to a fire at an express mechanic shop on Highway 6. The team search eventually led them to an extension of the building where there was someone inside.

After knocking enough brick out to check on the man, the captain took his helmet off to be able to get his head inside when the man stabbed him in the eye.

"My biggest fear was will I ever be able to see again," said Cpt. Willingham.

Doctors could not save his sight on his left side. It's been difficult for the captain and his wife but more than anything explaining to their three children ages 11, 7, and 2.

"We know we'll move on and be fine, it's the damage to our children. Our oldest is having a hard time," said Melanie Willingham, tearfully.

Although one is starting to see his father as a real warrior.

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"The middle child, Travis, said 'daddy you look more like a man now,'" said Cpt. Willingham.

He says the loss has also helped him see some things more clearly.

"This has really opened my eyes to what I have at home," said Cpt. Willingham.

One of the first HFD firefighters by his side was Captain Paul Bivens, who lost his sight in 1995.

"I was a rookie, just out of the academy," said Bivens.

His injury was from a personal car accident, but he knows the pain.

"I still remember 20-plus years ago holding on to that fight to be able to see," he added. "To come to grips with that and losing your eye."

Bivens learned to compensate for depth and perception and says once the mask is on and you're in a burning building visibility is low anyway. He says he was determined to fight fires again and he has been for almost 22 years, climbing to the ranks of captain.

"Doing the job, I know he can do it. I'm living proof," said Bivens.

Cpt. Willingham hopes to follow in his footsteps and climb back onto the truck at Station 75.

"He's taken a lot of time to reassure me that I'll be OK and can do this, and I will," added Cpt. Willingham.

A benefit is scheduled for Cpt. Willingham and his family next to Station 75 at the Vietnamese Baptist Church on Saturday, February 11 from 10am to 2pm.
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