Chowchilla, CA- By TY PHILLIPS


Riley and Sadie McCoy have been inseparable playmates as long as anyone can remember. That’s why the events of Dec. 30 did not surprise anyone who knows them.

Cheryl Smith’s youngest children, who grew up in Ceres and attended elementary schools there until the family moved to Chowchilla three years ago, played together that morning in a back bedroom of their home. Sometime around 10 a.m., the two decided to watch “Freaky Friday.”

Riley, 10, was on his bed as Sadie, 9, stood up to get something that had fallen onto the floor.

That’s when the explosion happened. The blast, which investigators say was caused by a propane leak from a water heater, destroyed the back half of the house, including the room where Riley and Sadie played.

The force threw Riley to the floor. He got up and ran into a hallway that leads to the living room. He had almost reached the front door when he heard his sister’s voice calling for him.

He retraced his steps to the bedroom and pushed a burning door open. A gaping hole loomed where a wall had been. Tiny fires burned everywhere, from scraps of wood and pieces of clothing strewed about the floor to the pictures on the wall.

And there, in the middle of it all, Sadie sat on the carpet. She looked up as her brother approached. “Thanks for coming back for me,” she said.

Riley leaned down and grabbed Sadie’s arms. He lifted her onto his shoulders, piggyback, and carried her outside. He set her down in a mud puddle.

“We started pouring water all over ourselves,” Riley said. “Our clothes were burning. I asked her if she was OK, and she said yes. I told her to keep watering off.”

But Sadie was far from OK. She suffered severe burns over 40 percent of her body, the worst covering her arms, legs and face.

She’s had three skin-graft surgeries already, and more are likely. She has been listed in critical condition in the burn unit of the University of California Medical Center in Fresno the past two weeks.

“What Riley did really didn’t surprise me,” said Cheryl Smith, who was at work when the accident happened. “They’re so close, it just sounds like something he would do. He thinks the world of his sister.

“He keeps telling me that he wants to take her pain from her so she can be well and come home. It breaks my heart.”

Riley was burned on roughly one-third of his body, particularly his arms, face and right leg. He was released from the hospital, but goes to the burn unit once a week to have his bandages changed.

The injuries are minor in his mind, especially compared with seeing his sister lying sedated in a hospital bed, her arms and legs suspended in the air.

“When we were inside the ambulance, she told me to tell her everywhere she was burned,” Riley said. “I told her, ‘You’re all burned up.’ She asked me, ‘How come I’m burning so bad?’ I told her there was an explosion and that skin burns up real easily.”

Moments later, the ambulance door opened. As emergency workers got ready to wheel Sadie to a waiting helicopter, she and Riley quickly said their goodbyes.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”