Bryan Miller remembers almost everything about the September night he almost died. He wishes he could forget.
First was the bang of a motorcycle backfiring inside an Ohio body shop, which triggered a combustible chain reaction. Then the pure shock and desperation as flames surrounded him and he raced to squeeze through a narrow window to escape.
Miller remembers screaming—he’s just not sure if it was in pain, terror, or both—ripping off his burning clothes and rolling around in the grass outside the shop. He remembers a helicopter ride to a trauma center in agonizing pain, followed by the news that he had suffered third-degree burns over more than 70 percent of his body.
Since then, Miller has battled through an arduous recovery, with 10 surgeries so far and at least another two on the horizon, plus ongoing physical therapy. Much of his skin remains dry, tight and scarred, still at risk of ripping into open wounds.
“I feel lucky I survived, but it has changed everything,” he says. “I was a healthy and fit guy, and now I get tired from walking like half a mile. I can’t go to sleep without reliving that night, over and over. But I’m getting stronger every day, and I’m not giving up.”
Miller, 32, dreams of returning to his career as an auto technician and painter. He is humbled by the outpouring of support not only from his family, fiancée and friends, but from the Collision Industry Foundation (CIF) and the auto body industry.
“Before this,” he notes, “I didn’t really realize how much people around me loved me.”
To Michael Quinn, CIF’s board president, helping Miller was a simple decision: “At a time when it’s so hard to find employees, here we have a really nice, strong young man who wants to stay in this industry, who loves this industry. We’re committed to taking this journey with him.”
Escaped with His Life
Miller grew up in Batavia, Ohio, about 30 minutes outside Cincinnati. Like many a boy, he was drawn to cars early and spent hours playing with a Hot Wheels track in his backyard. He also enjoyed watching car shows on television.
After high school, Miller worked as a professional mover and a tattoo artist. In 2016, he joined a friend who had a job in a shop that restored classic cars, starting out with mostly cleaning duties. Within two years, he was doing painting, bodywork and framework.
“As soon as I started working with cars, I knew that was where I was supposed to be,” he recalls. “I loved taking something broken down and fix it up and make it beautiful, and all the technical and artistic abilities you needed to have.”
Miller mastered his skills as a painter/combustion collision technician at two other Ohio-area companies before coming to Elite Auto Body, Cycle and Sales in Bethel, Ohio. He was working on his own motorcycle the night of the fire.
At about 9:30 p.m., Miller was putting on a new starter when a spark apparently triggered an explosion. He was trapped inside for about 1½ minutes before cramming himself through a window that he estimates was only a foot high and another foot wide.
“All I was just thinking, ‘I have to get out of here,’” he says. “I don’t know how I did.”
As the shop burned to the ground, a man and woman passing by on a motorcycle stopped to help. In Miller’s recollection, they waited 30 minutes for medical technicians and another 30 for a helicopter to evacuate him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Miller never lost consciousness. “That wasn’t a good thing,” he says.
Rescuers told Miller that if he’d been stuck inside the shop for even 30 seconds longer, he almost certainly would have died. Miller can be brutally honest: He says there were numerous days in the hospital when he wished he had.
The majority of Miller’s body was covered in third-degree burns. Only his face was miraculously spared, other than a few tiny spots on his nose and beneath his bottom lip.
Third-degree burns, also known as “full-thickness burns,” completely destroy the first two layers of the skin and extend into a fatty layer beneath. In Miller’s case, the flames ate away all of his sleeve and chest tattoos.
Daily wound cleanings and dressing changes in the hospital sometimes stretched as long as six hours.
“It was brutal, absolutely traumatic,” Miller says. “Not only having the procedures but anticipating them. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Surgeons also performed multiple skin grafts to cover Miller’s most severe burns and help them heal. He also survived a near-fatal case of pneumonia and later a bout with COVID-19.
Miller was in the Cincinnati hospital for 70 days. Just three weeks after he was released, he developed a dangerous infection and had to be readmitted, followed by a stay at the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care until mid-February.
Miller’s biggest supporters have been his dad, Ron Miller—a diabetic struggling with his own health issues—and his fiancée Kassi Nellett, his girlfriend of six years. He moved back in with his dad in his hometown, and Nellett has never wavered in her devotion.
“She’s my rock,” he says. “She has spent hours changing my dressings. And my dad, he looks out for me and I look out for him.”
Miller’s loved ones, in turn, have been inspired by him. “I’m just happy he’s been given such an amazing opportunity to live,” says Nellett, who currently cleans houses for a living. “And more so, just about the courage and confidence he has to continue.”
The road ahead won’t be easy, of course.
Miller must apply lotion throughout the day to keep his skin moist and do stretches each morning to regain the mobility he has fought for in physical therapy sessions. His skin constantly feels as if he’s wearing clothes that are much too small.
The skin across the middle of Miller’s chest is the most uncomfortable and prone to breakage. When that happens, he puts on a bandage and pushes on with his day. He has weaned himself off pain medications, which interfered with his mood and sleep.
Come fall, Miller likely will undergo surgeries to remove thickened scar tissue in both arms in hopes of improving his range of motion, possibly with more skin grafts. He also will continue in physical therapy this summer, typically for an hour per session at least twice a week.
Miller is working to rebuild strength in his hands, especially his dominant right hand, although mercifully both are still functional. He guesses the bottoms of his hands were not burned as badly as the tops because they were covered in thick calluses from working with cars.
Because Miller can’t sweat in any areas where he has skin grafts, he is at high risk for overheating and must be particularly careful in hot weather.
Perhaps the toughest challenge, however, is the near-nightly episodes of flashbacks as Miller lies in bed. “I just kind of go back to the explosion,” he explains. “I can almost feel the heat and pressure. It’s hard to deal with and hard to describe.”
Along with steep medical bills, Miller eventually will need money to find permanent housing, replace his tools and other belongings lost in the fire, and train for future professional opportunities that might accommodate his physical limitations.
While he’d love to paint cars again, Miller worries that his damaged skin might react poorly to certain chemicals. Once he determines what role he can play in the auto industry, potential options include joining a friend’s restoration shop or getting a job referral through Quinn.
The nonprofit CIF, generally involved in disaster relief efforts, has been busy fundraising for Miller, including planning a live auction during July’s Collision Industry Conference meeting and gala in Pittsburgh. I-CAR also has committed to donate refinishing courses if wanted.
“Moving forward, we will see what Bryan needs as he recovers, and we will be there for him as we do that,” Quinn says. “This young man gives me strength every day. We will always be cheering him on.”
Despite lingering moments of frustration and despair, Miller is grateful to be alive. He stays busy by taking walks, occasionally enjoying his metal detecting hobby and, mostly, just hanging out with his loyal family.
“I am so blessed,” he says. “Sometimes I lose sight of that on my harder days; I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone. But I’m very glad to still be around.”
To help, visit www.collisionindustryfoundation.org/donate and click on the “Donations for Burn Victim Bryan Miller” tab. Donations are 100 percent tax-deductible.