Twenty years after the industrial accident that nearly took his life, Leonard Tayon still inspires others. This past July, family and friends gathered around the 57-year-old Grantsville man at the local fire station to celebrate his life. They expressed admiration for his faith, his amazing will to live and his wife’s devotion. They spoke of gratitude for letting them be witnesses to miracles as he went through hell and back.
When the accident took place in 1992, many — Leonard included — thought that marked the end of a good life.
On that fateful night, an explosion at MagCorp, then U.S. Magnesium, burned more than 52 percent of his body. Almost all of the burns were third degree and had to be grafted over with new skin. For two months, he was in a medically induced coma, as doctors fought to keep him alive. For 10 months, he was blind.
Before the explosion, the then 37-year-old’s life couldn’t be better. Happily married for nearly two decades to his wife Janet, they had four kids ages 8 to 16. He had a stable job at MagCorp and was involved in the community as an EMT and volunteer firefighter.
Since the accident, he’s had to endure excruciating pain, a roller coaster recovery, temporary blindness, scarring, disfigurement and 60- some surgeries.
“Though it was tough to make it through, the blessings were tremendous,” Leonard said. “I wouldn’t bypass the pain in exchange for the love my family and I have felt since the accident.”
Leonard spoke of LDS church members who drove Janet to the hospital daily for weeks because she simply wasn’t in any emotional shape to drive and neighbors who took care of the kids, brought the family meals and ran their laundry. He also spoke of the blood drive held on his behalf — the third largest one in University of Utah’s history — and an anonymous person who harvested peaches from their tree and brought them back bottled to their front porch.
Some people weren’t even aware they gave him and Janet a lifeline.
“I used to help Leonard in the bathtub for three hours every night,” Janet said. “He was hurting a lot and was discouraged and depressed. I thought, ‘How could I help him when I was just as depressed as he was?’ I said a prayer that someone would come and help us.”
Not long after that, they heard singing outside. The couple went to the door and saw angelic-faced Cub Scouts singing Christmas carols. Leonard said he couldn’t have survived the ordeal without, first and foremost, his wife.
“I would be lost without her,” he said. “I was grateful to have her by my side the whole time.”
When he speaks fondly of Janet, it’s as though years have fallen away and they’re both 16 again, meeting for the first time. In 1972, Leonard had just moved to Grantsville from Granite City, Ill., bitter about leaving behind a lush green city for the dull sagebrush of the Tooele Valley. One day, while working at a convenience store, he spied Janet Paskett and called her over.
“It was a wonderful feeling, seeing her,” he said. “It was like we knew each other before we came to earth. I fell head over heels in love. I still have that feeling today.”
Janet thought the longhaired newcomer was cute and different from other boys in Grantsville. A few years later, though her parents initially had reservations about her marrying someone who was not LDS as their family was, they gave the couple their blessing.
Eventually, Leonard joined the LDS church. The pair credits their faith for getting them through their trials after the accident.
“Neil Critchlow and [other good friends] gave him a blessing promising him he would live, recover and enjoy life. Boy, I hung onto those words through a lot of weeks of hard times, Janet said.” Leonard recalled another faith-building incident when he was coming out of his coma.
“I woke to a feeling of peace, of unconditional love,” he said. “If I could’ve reached my right hand out, I know I could have touched the cloak of my Savior. It was so wonderful.”
Their parents’ examples also gave the couple strength. Leonard’s father worked two jobs while his mother worked graveyard shifts at the hospital. His mother had an artificial leg, more like a wooden stump, thanks to a motorcycle accident at 18. Despite constant leg pain, she worked hard and raised six kids. Janet said her own hard-working parents had a lot of faith. She listened to stories of her mother digging up sugar beets under the hot sun and growing up in a family of 14 kids.
Once, her dad told her something she would never forget. A few months after Leonard’s accident, they got together as an extended family to discuss their medical crises. Leonard had just gotten out of the burn unit, Janet’s mother was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, and Chris, the Tayons’ youngest son, had just been diagnosed with bone tumors. Someone said, “We can’t do this. This is too much.” “Dad had us hold our hands in a circle and looked us in the eye,” Janet said. “He said, ‘We can do anything as long as we stick together as a family.’”
Nineteen months after the accident, Leonard was ready to go back to work, but he couldn’t do the same job since he had no sweat glands. Thankfully, he was able to take up the position of safety trainer, a job he loves. He also loves community work like mentoring kids at burn camps and serving as Grantsville City’s coordinator for the Community Emergency Response Team, which he speaks of with passion.
“Each of us needs to prepare to help our community in the event of a catastrophe,” he said. “There’s a place for every adult to volunteer.”
Brent Marshall, Grantsville City mayor, praised Leonard’s community service as well as his character. He’s been good friends with Leonard since high school, as well as while they both served at the Grantsville Fire Department and worked at MagCorp. Like others, his family stayed in close contact with the Tayons throughout the accident and its aftermath.
“Leonard confirmed all of my first impressions of him,” said Marshall. “He has a tremendous spirit. I admire his desire to serve and his compassion for others. Janet is a remarkable woman. Her devotion to her family is commendable. You could see the love and concern she had for her family.”
In 2013, the Tayons will celebrate 40 years of marriage.
“Our love has grown in leaps and bounds,” Leonard said. The arrival of grandchildren has made life even sweeter. Five years after the accident, when he held his oldest daughter’s baby in his arms, he and Janet cried tears of joy.
At the 20-year celebration this past July, Janet said, “I’m grateful for all the things Leonard’s been able to do with our family, like holding our grandchildren.”
“It’s been 20 years of gratitude,” Leonard said. “Each day is a gift.”