Local News

Photographer injured in explosion dives back into life

Posted November 15, 2011 6:05 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2011 7:23 p.m. EST

— An underwater photographer who lost his left arm in a January explosion at his Fayetteville home says he's slowly re-learning to dive and shoot video.

Former WRAL News photographer Rick Allen had pulled into his garage on Jan. 3 when an oxygen tank used for diving toppled over and exploded. He suffered burns over 20 percent of his body, and his arm was blown off.

"Right after the explosion, I remember looking down at my left arm and going, 'Wow, my life has changed forever,'" Allen said Tuesday. "After that, my next thought was, 'Oh crap, I'm on fire!'"

His wife, Cindy Burnham, who was inside the house at the time of the explosion, sprayed him with a fire extinguisher.

Allen grabbed a garden hose with his right arm, determined to put out the house fire. A neighbor who heard the explosion ran over and grabbed the hose from him, and Allen asked the man to care for Burnham and his golden retriever, Lucky.

"I was in pain beyond pain," he said. "(I thought), 'You can let go. This can all be over, and the pain will go away,' and I just remember thinking, 'Hell no. It's not my day to die.'"

He told the firefighters responding to the explosion and house fire to go look for his arm.

"I knew it was in the garage somewhere and that there may be the possibility that they can reattach it if it's cleanly cut off," he said.

Instead, he spent three months at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill – most of it in a drug-induced coma – and surgeons amputated his forearm.

A renowned underwater photographer for television networks like the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel, Allen has roamed the world, exploring shipwrecks and swimming with sharks. By July, he was back in the water.

"It's a place I love being, and it's good for your soul," he said. "The first time I got back in the pool, I knew exactly how much I'd lost. So, getting back in the ocean is really kind of bittersweet."

He went back in the ocean in September, poking around the wreckage of Blackbeard's ship off North Carolina's coast with his prosthetic arm.

"I'm getting used to it," he said of his new limb. "It's really cool to have a thumb again."

Allen is planning a dive trip to the Bahamas as early as next month, and he also is shooting video again. He admits, however, that he can never be the photographer he was before the explosion.

"It is (discouraging) because I love running a camera," he said. "That is the best job in the world, to be the guy behind the camera."