From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Dec. 11 had been a typically busy day for Hannah Storm, the ESPN anchor best known for cohosting SportsCenter. So when it came time for family dinner, "I was rushing to cook, like I do every night," she says. She lit the outdoor grill, tossed on a pork tenderloin and headed back inside her Connecticut home. Several moments later, when Storm noticed that the grill's flame had blown out, she simply turned a dial to reignite it, unaware that propane had continued filling the cold winter air. Within seconds, "a wall of fire came at me," Storm recalls of the grill exploding. "I didn't process the situation until I looked down and saw I was on fire. It was like a nightmare."

Blasted by flames, Storm, 50, sustained first-degree burns to her face and neck and second-degree burns on her chest and left hand. Part of her nose and pieces of her chest melted off beneath the flames that consumed her T-shirt and half of her hair. "I knew I wasn't going to lose a limb, and intellectually, I knew I'd eventually heal," Storm says of the aftermath. But with the extent of the damage to her face unclear, she realized her future on TV was at risk. "One of my first questions to the EMT was, 'How's my face? Will I ever be able to work again?' "

Amazingly, the answer is yes. On Jan. 1, with the help of hair extensions and heavy makeup, Storm cohosted the Rose Parade for ESPN just three weeks after her accident. Later this month, she plans to return to her SportsCenter anchor gig; she'll also handle ESPN's Super Bowl coverage next month. "Getting back on air was a huge deal for her," says Storm's husband, NBC sportscaster Dan Hicks. "It was an important step."

Even with that positive news, the trauma of the explosion has been hard to shake. Thanks to her involvement with military charities and her friendship with actor J.R. Martinez, himself a burn victim, Storm knew the horror that awaited her at the hospital: "They scrape the wounds to get rid of the dead skin," she says. "I was shaking. My teeth were chattering. That was the scariest part."

One day after the accident, she finally looked at herself in the mirror. "I thought, 'All right. This is our starting point,' " Storm says, breaking down into tears as she recalls the shock of her swollen appearance. "I was pretty scary-looking." Her girls, Hannah, 16, Ellery, 14, and Riley, 11, were equally unsettled. "Ellery was terrified; she didn't want to see her mom," says Hicks. But once Storm returned home, facing weeks of ointments, bandage changes and painkillers, the girls came together. Riley helped her mom organize her medication, and Ellery drew on eyebrows so Storm could attend Christmas mass with them. "To have your children care for you is a profound experience," says Storm. "I was so grateful."

As gratifying as it was to return to TV, her first day in front of the cameras was also overwhelming. "I was nervous for anyone to touch my face," she says. Makeup was "unpleasant" to put on, but Storm was pleased with the results: "I didn't look exactly the same, but this is who I am. I'm okay."

With a long recovery still ahead, Storm admits that she's worried about having the stamina to endure the "very intense" three-hour SportsCenter. But despite the challenges, "I know I am extraordinarily lucky," she says. Storm won't need skin grafts, which means her recovery will be easier than for many burn victims. "If I could never be on TV again, it wouldn't change who I am. My family wouldn't love me any less," she says, dabbing away her tears. "But I really feel like God blessed me by allowing me to keep doing something that I love so much."