His body was consumed by fiery pain as he ran through the field for help.
Dax Cowart, a 25-year-old Air Force pilot, believed he was a dead man. He was not running for help to save his life. He was running to find someone who would give him a gun. He wanted to shoot himself to stop the pain.The pilot had been showing his father some land in Texas he hoped to homestead. Afterward, they walked through the field to their car to leave. When the car hesitated to start, Cowart sat at the steering wheel as his father looked under the hood for the problem. When Cowart turned the ignition, the car exploded into a fireball. Splintered glass pierced flesh. Colorless, odorless propane gas had been leaking - undetected - from a major underground line. An ocean of gas became a deadly ocean of flames, surrounding Cowart and his father.
His father did not survive.
With most of his body on fire, Cowart rolled in grass to smother the flames, then ran half a mile to a nearby house. Hearing Cowart's screams, the homeowner rushed to assist him. When the young man pleaded for a gun, saying, "Can't you see I'm a dead man?" the man refused to help Cowart end his life.
That refusal began Cowart's struggle for his right to die.
The following 14 months were filled with nothing but "pain too excruciating for words" as the doctors patched Cowart's charred face, hands and most of his body back together. From the beginning, Cowart screamed at doctors and nurses, trying to refuse treatment, insisting on his desire - and God-given right as a mentally competent adult - to die.
His urgings were ignored.
In a passionate address Tuesday night, Cowart urged physicians, nurses and therapists at the national conference of the North American Burn Society to "honor a patient's right to be left alone to die."
"Even though medical technology gives you the power to extend a person's life, technology should be a servant of mankind, not the master," he said.
In addition to burning more than 75 percent of his body, the 1973 accident robbed Cowart of his sight and most of his hearing. His arms are twisted; his hands have a few stubs in the place of fingers. He can lift a glass, but it is a challenge.
His mother refused to honor Cowart's desire to die because "she was mourning the death of her husband and couldn't bear the thought of losing me as well. She also feared I would change my mind after treatment was refused, but I knew I wouldn't," Cowart said.
Eventually, Cowart agreed to treatment "to get out of the hospital."
About a year later, he enrolled in law school. Studying from law books verbally recorded for the blind, Cowart succeeded in obtaining a law degree. Today, he frequently uses his legal skills to help other critically ill patients "make the right decision about whether they want to live or die." He empowers patients with a knowledge of the law, he says.
"If a mentally competent adult wants to refuse treatment, doctors who impose treatment may be sued for assault and battery or for unrightful life," Cowart said.
When he suffered unspeakably in the hospital through skin-grafting surgeries and endless physical therapy, he begged to talk to an attorney, but his requests were stifled, he said.
About five years ago, Cowart, who then lived in Texas, met his wife, Randy, through a phone interview. The couple have recently moved to Salt Lake City.
Even though Cowart enjoys his life now and has discovered a "profound feeling of peace and happiness through the power of positive thinking" he still wishes he had not been treated by doctors.
"If I could go through the experience again - knowing the outcome - I would not want my life to be saved. I would not ever wish to go through that unbearable pain again," he said.
"This is not a statement of how bad life is now, but a statement about the intensity of the pain."
He is devoting his life to encouraging physicians to counsel with their patients, to listen to their desires and respect their right to govern their own bodies.
Cowart enjoys giving "motivation" lectures to youth groups.
"Happiness usually has little to do with your circumstances but a great deal to do with what's going on inside your head," Cowart said.
"When kids look at my body and my challenges, they know they can conquer just about anything."