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Badly burned hero recalls steam pipe explosion

Gregory McCullough, who was badly burned but survived a steam pipe explosion in New York City in July, tells TODAY that God told him that he still has things for McCullough to do.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Gregory McCullough knows there’s a reason he survived being burned over 80 percent of his body; a reason for the daily pain the tow truck driver lives with; a reason for the years of physical therapy he faces to return to something resembling a normal life.

He knows because he says that’s what God told him after a steam pipe explosion nearly killed him in New York City in July.

“He’s told me, ‘There’s something that I want you to do,’” McCullough told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Friday.

“I just don’t know what it is yet. When He reveals it to me, I will follow,” McCullough said.

It was just his second day since being released from New York-Presbyterian Hospital, more than three months after a Consolidated Edison power company steam pipe exploded under his tow truck, scalding him and his passenger in 400-degree steam. McCullough managed to save himself and his passenger.

He looked relatively good, although his face is scarred from the burns. He lives in constant pain.

“Just trying to stand up, it’s really tough,” the 21-year-old told Lauer.

Even getting dressed is painful and time-consuming. “Putting on a shirt takes me 10 minutes,” he said, and getting into the special compression undergarments he must wear to protect his scarred skin requires the help of another person.

Life changed in an instant
McCullough’s struggles are a far cry from the good life he was headed toward on July 18. A student who wanted to join the Marines or become a police office, he had a summer job driving a tow truck in New York City, his hometown.

He had towed a car belonging to Judith Bailey, a 30-year-old single mother of two, and was driving Bailey home when he stopped at a red light on Lexington Avenue at 41st Street.

Most buildings in Manhattan get their heat from super-hot steam under high pressure delivered by Con Ed through pipes buried under the streets. The pipe that exploded directly under McCullough’s truck was nearly a century old and, according to his attorneys, who have filed a lawsuit against the utility company, it cracked.

When the pipe exploded, it blew a crater in the street, sending a geyser of steam 80 feet into the air and lifting McCullough’s 15,000-pound truck like a toy. When it crashed back into the crater, the scalding water started boiling into the cab, and McCullough told Bailey he was going to count to three and both were going to jump out and run for their lives.

“If we had stayed in the truck, we’d have been boiled like lobsters,” he had told a press conference at his church on Thursday.

He ran through the scalding steam, fell on the pavement, rolling in agony, got up, ran some more. He ran into a building, begging for help, and he remembers people looking at him as if he were an alien and backing away from him, horrified at the vision of a man whose skin had melted off most of his body. Finally, others poured water on him and called 911.

McCullough didn’t know how badly he was burned or what he looked like, but even today, he is mystified about how people could turn away from someone who needed help as desperately as he did that day.

“I really didn’t understand why,” he told Lauer, “because if somebody would have ran to me for help, the burns as bad as I had, I would have helped them.”

Doctors put him into a medically induced coma for more than two months while they began the task of first trying to save his life and then putting him back together. For a time, there was fear that a badly damaged arm and leg would have to be amputated. He’s had 10 surgeries and faces more surgery, multiple skin grafts and years of physical therapy.

It’s painful just to touch his thumb to his pinky, painful to get out of his wheelchair, painful to do almost anything.

He was at once the unluckiest person in New York to be stopped directly at ground zero when the pipe let go. But he also feels pretty lucky — and blessed — to be alive.

It has, he told reporters on Thursday, strengthened his faith.

“God has played the biggest role in my recovery,” McCullough said. “It has boosted my faith 1,000 percent — through the roof. Some people say there is no God, but there is. There has to be.”