Sitting in a chair next to her bed at Vibra Hospital in San Diego, Martine Bellocq prepares to speak by using her thumb to hold in place the bandage over the tracheotomy opening in her neck as visitors in protective gowns and gloves lock eyes and listen.
The horse trainer was burned over 60 percent of her body when the Lilac wildfire raced through San Luis Rey Downs on Dec. 7 in San Diego County, killing 46 horses and displacing dozens of others. Isolated in a burn unit, she’s waited months to speak, braving a port installed in her chest, tubes flowing from her nose, three-times-weekly dialysis, eight skin-graft surgeries and the amputation of her lower left leg.
When her prized colt Wild Bill Hickory refused to budge as smoke filled his stall and flames made their way across the barn, Bellocq decided she had one more shot. She grabbed a hose, doused herself from head to toe, and charged inside.
“When it got so hot, my body started to burn,” Bellocq said this week. “It hurt so much. I just walked out of the barn. He’ll find me. He’ll find me.”
Sitting nearby, her husband Pierre reached out a hand and spoke in a muffled whisper.
“I found you,” he said to his wife of nearly 42 years.
“He’s the best husband,” Martine said. “Every day, he came. Every day, he supports me. He’s a wonderful man.”
Pierre recalled finding his wife, who collapsed outside the barn. They had been separated for just three minutes.
“What struck me when I came to her was, the skin on her hands had literally melted down,” Pierre recalled. “It looked like she had white rubber gloves that were coming off her hands. It was skin, actually. You had bright red and white skin hanging down from the fingernails.
“Not a pretty sight.”
There are so many questions. How did the blaze move that quickly? How did it hopscotch, from palm tree to palm tree? There’s far too much to process, including some things that never will settle.
Pierre fought the urge to unravel at what he saw. He raced to find a golf cart and drove his wife to emergency personnel staged at the San Luis Rey Downs entrance.
“You’re almost doing things mechanically,” Pierre said. “There’s so much going through your head. You have to act. It’s an emergency situation. You feel like breaking down and crying, but you know you have to do something.
“You either completely lose it or continue acting.”
As an ambulance sped toward Palomar Medical Center, the one word Martine managed to utter rang in Pierre’s ears. Billy? He ran back to the stall to see if anything could be done for the colt.
“The first thing I saw was Billy, in the middle of the shed row in front of his stall,” said Pierre, 66. “He laid down, his legs burned to the knees and the hocks. There was nothing below the knees. He must have thrown himself into the shed row, in flames.
“It’s the most horrible scene I’d ever seen.”
A small army of medical personnel cared for Martine. Pierre knew, though, that he had to take care of himself so he could aid the recovery, as well. That’s what Martine had done, about a decade ago, when some mis-timed medications caused Pierre’s blood sugar to plummet as he slipped into a diabetic coma.
“His heart stopped,” said Martine, 64. “They told me he was dead.”
Then she made the sound of paddles offering an electric jolt: “Boom! Boom! Then he came back to life. I was there for him. He’s there for me.”
In 1974, the two French citizens crossed unlikely paths in Aiken, S.C., where they both landed jobs at the horse-training center. Two years later, they were married.
“It’s strange, maybe fate or something,” Pierre said.
When the Bellocqs’ daughter moved to Temecula in Southern California, the lure of two grandchildren brought Pierre and Martine to San Luis Rey Downs.
That’s where they decided to establish their own horse-training operation.
Then came the fire last December.
When Martine finally emerged from her coma, a flood of questions followed. She had lost all sense of time. She asked about the horses and the other workers.
“I didn’t know it was 2018,” she said. “I thought it was 2017. I was in outer space.”
As Martine soaked up the devastating whole of it all, she made a critical decision. She would embrace the silver linings, she would relentlessly search for hope, and she would fight just as hard as Pierre when he was ill.
“I want to send a message to people who are burned and handicapped to hang in there and believe everything will be OK,” she said. “There are a lot of people like me who need some help. I wish I could go see those people and talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I made it — you can make it, too.’”
Will she return to San Luis Rey? Of course.
“It was just an accident,” said Martine, who was moved Friday to a facility closer to home.
On a hospital-room window sill rests a Spirt of Courage award from San Diego’s Burn Institute. It honors both Bellocqs and another burned trainer, Joe Herrick. Martine hardly needed the reminder about Pierre.