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After the Flames: Book reveals truth about 'tragic' life of Joe Philion

'He became a national hero and was kind of trapped by that narrative,' says stepbrother of Cumberland Beach fire victim who has authored a book about the tragedy

It was a story that made headlines around the world.

But some have always questioned the details surrounding a 1988 fire in Cumberland Beach — with some information being made public for the first time in a new book that has just been released.

Jonathan R. Rose's book, After the Flames: A Burn Victim's Battle with Celebrity, is about his stepbrother, Joe Philion, who saved his younger brother, Danny, from a Cleveland Avenue blaze during the morning of March 10, 1988.

According to the reports from many media outlets, Philion then ran back into his burning home to save his mother, Linda Hawkins, who, unknown to Philion, had left the home minutes earlier to drive her husband to work.

Philion, who was 14 at the time, suffered third- and fourth-degree burns to more than 90 per cent of his body during his rescue efforts. He was never the same.

"The story grew about a month after his unlikely survival, and the CBC and other media outlets ran with the story of Joey being a hero," Rose explained. "Under a lot of medication and such, he kind of manipulated the truth."

In 2016, Philion admitted to Rose that he knew his mother wasn't home at the time of the fire. Instead, he ran back into the home to try to contain the flames that came from an accident while he tended to the fireplace and embers jumped out and lit up a bone-dry carpet. The home then exploded with him in it.

"To admit that would let everyone and the narrative down," Rose said of Philion's thinking. "He became a national hero and was kind of trapped by that narrative."

Rose's book tells Philion's story through insiders, family members, hundreds of newspaper archives, and through conversations with Philion.

"It's hard to say that he lied," Rose said. "The narrative exploded and became something so huge that this 14-year-old kid, who wasn't even supposed to live the night, just couldn't bear to disappoint the whole country or even his own mother, who passed away not even knowing what truly happened that morning."

In the book, Rose takes a deeper look at whether Philion should still be considered a hero despite the manipulation of his story.

"It's a question many people have been asking, myself included, for the last 30 years," he said. "He did get his brother out. He survived 98 per cent third-degree burns when most people die when they suffer 40 per cent."

Philion spent years at the Shriners children’s hospital in Boston, where he underwent hundreds of surgeries.

"Thousands of people were able to be saved because he was basically a guinea pig for the Shriners to discover new ways to treat burn victims," Rose explained. "There was so much strength that he showed."

At times, while receiving medical treatment, Philion told his story to media through blinking as he was unable to speak. Months later, after fully regaining coherency, he was met with honours and medals for bravery.

"He was being paraded on TV and was getting letters from the prime minister," Rose said. "It was an overwhelming abundance of deification that I don't think any 14-year-old could handle."

Rose says he doesn't "demonize" his stepbrother in his new book, but he also believes the community deserves the true story, especially because people rallied to build Philion and his family a new, mortgage-free house, complete with an elevator, that would allow him to be as independent as possible while in a wheelchair.

The family also received a trust fund with $200,000 — all raised through a local campaign that received donations from across the country.

Living with the untold truth tremendously affected the rest of Philion's life.

"He was riddled with guilt," Rose said. "I spent a lot of time with him throughout my youth and parts of my adult years, and there was always a sense that he was irritable."

Rose says there may have been times when Philion believed his own lie.

"The celebrity definitely got to him," he said. "I think, as he got older and matured, he started realizing the gravity of it."

When Philion turned 40, he told his stepfather, Mike Hawkins, the truth. His stepfather was furious with him.

"I expect that this book will anger some people," Rose said, "but for him to hold onto that for almost 30 years, it was definitely a weight on him, especially as he got older."

While Philion made mistakes, he was a regular human who endured an extraordinary situation and handled it the best way he could as a 14-year-old, Rose says. Philion also expressed to Rose that he had wanted to tell the truth for some time.

Rose hopes those who read his book will question what they would have done in Philion's position, saying the book poses more questions than answers.

"It's easy to say you would have told the truth, but would you have?" he asked. "By the time he got his lucidity back, he got bags of letters saying he was a hero and that these people survived because of his strength. To tell them that he accidentally did it — I can't imagine that."

Philion died alone in a Vancouver hospital in November 2021. He succumbed to the effects of a urinary tract infection.

"The circumstances to me were really heartbreaking," Rose said. "He just became pretty destitute, and I know his last years were not great."

While Rose says Philion's unfortunate demise was largely his own doing, he says his life was "tragic."

After the Flames is available from Dundurn Press and Amazon. The paperback version costs $25.99 and the Kindle version on Amazon is $9.99.


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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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