The story of George Emberley, the Grand Bank boy set ablaze on Bonfire Night in 1961

George Emberley at 14, in a picture taken by Allan Stoodley for his first interview with the Grand Bank boy in 1962 after he was released from hospital. (Allan Stoodley - image credit)
George Emberley at 14, in a picture taken by Allan Stoodley for his first interview with the Grand Bank boy in 1962 after he was released from hospital. (Allan Stoodley - image credit)

It was 7 o'clock on the night of Nov. 4, 1961, when sixteen-year-old Jane Emberley turned away from the window over the kitchen sink where she was washing the supper dishes, and exclaimed to her mother, "Mom, I got some fright — for a minute I thought I saw someone running around the Commons afire. Some of the children must have set fire to a tire and was rolling it around."

Jane had hardly finished talking when a dozen young children rushed into their Grand Bank home — their little faces white with terror — shouting and talking, all at the same time: "George is burned to death!" "He's all afire!"

Thirteen-year-old George Emberley didn't die — but he came close.

When I interviewed him in 1962, George detailed for me exactly what happened on that Bonfire Night, 61 years ago.

After supper, Emberley and some of his siblings went up to the commons, a large grassy open ground adjoining the beach, about 180 metres from the Emberly home. Because Nov. 5 that year was a Sunday, Bonfire Night was celebrated a day earlier.

Hovering between life and death

"My older brother, Carlson, was going to light it for us but we decided to get it going before he came. Dad kept some gasoline out by our store, so I sneaked into the porch, got a can and then took some of the gas," he said.

"I lit the fire and then went to throw the gas on to get it going good — it blew back and I didn't know anything before I was all afire."

Emberly started to run, and two men who were supervising another fire nearby caught him and wrapped him their jackets, extinguishing the flames.

"Then Dad came and rushed me to the hospital," said Emberley.

Allan Stoodley
Allan Stoodley

For 10 days — including his birthday on Nov. 7 — he hovered between life and death at the Grand Bank Cottage Hospital.

Six days after the accident, George's seventeen-year-old sister, Joyce, was working at Buffett's Store.

"I was at the bottom of the steps in the upper store when Mr. Curtis Forsey came in. He asked me about how the family was doing and he was looking at me kind of quizzical," she said.

"I told him that we were doing well and that George was getting real good care at the hospital. He was so surprised at my answer because he had heard 'on the Grand Bank News' that George had died — he was on his way upstairs to buy a sympathy card."

Four days later, George was airlifted to the old General Hospital in St. John's. Joyce went with him.

"Due to the fact that Mom was very pregnant at the time, I went with George on the helicopter ride to St. John's," she said. Twenty-two days after the accident, their baby brother Bill was born.

"I remember Mom and Dad going to St. John's to see George and came home telling us not to expect to see him again."

Submitted by the Emberley family
Submitted by the Emberley family

For four long months he was isolated in a room at the General — under the watchful eye of Dr. Angus Neary — where operation after operation was performed, peeling the flesh from the top half of his body to graft it onto the lower part, from his waist down.To get enough flesh, he had to have it taken off his chest and back twice within those four months.

"I know what it is like to go to hell on earth," George told me recently. "I would beg and beg the hospital staff to give me needles for pain."

On March 11, 1962, he was released from the hospital and returned home to Grand Bank. For the first few weeks he could walk only a few steps but gradually the determined lad began to get his strength back — after several months he could be seen running.

I became more determined than ever to push myself until I could walk. - George Emberley

He still couldn't play soccer or hockey, but as his mother told me at the time, it was a miracle he could even walk. Neary had told her the ligaments in one of his ankles had been badly burned and it looked as if he would be crippled.

George told me that when he heard that he would never walk again, it only made him more set on doing just that.

"I became more determined than ever to push myself until I could walk," he said.

George, the son of Randolph and Ellie Emberley, had six brothers and seven sisters. One sibling, Carlson, is deceased. In 1970 George married a Grand Bank girl, Judy Evans, and they have two children, Stephen and Joanne. An automotive mechanic by trade, he spent most of his working years employed in the family business started by his father: Emberley's Transport Limited.

Now living in Mount Pearl, he retired 10 years ago but is still on call when the firm needs his services. Judy, a hairstylist, still operates her own beauty salon. When their son, Stephen, was 18 months old the family moved to Toronto for four years so he could attend a school for the deaf. They returned to Grand Bank and lived there for several more years, then moved to the St. John's area permanently.

"Forty years after the accident we took Dr. Neary out to dinner," George told me at the end of my most recent interview. "After dinner he came back to our house to meet the family."

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