Three Years After His Father Set Him Afire, David Rothenberg Not Only Survives but Smiles

updated 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On March 3, 1983, 6-year-old David Rothenberg was sleeping in a motel room near Disneyland in Southern California when his father, Charles, then 42, doused the room with three gallons of kerosene, lit a match and fled. Seconds later the room exploded into flames. David's screams could be heard as his father sped away in a car. An eyewitness called police, and within minutes David was rushed to the burn unit of the University of California Irvine Medical Center. With severe burns over 90 percent of his body, David was given 24 hours to live.

Charles Rothenberg returned to the scene of the fire in time to see the ambulance carrying his son to Irvine. From the hospital lobby he wired his ex-wife, Marie Rothenberg, in New York. The message read: "By the time you get this telegram, I will have terminated my existence. David has been in a very bad accident."

Charles Rothenberg was arrested in San Francisco six days later. He was eventually convicted of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 13 years in Soledad Prison. He will be eligible for parole in December 1990.

David Rothenberg, disfigured for life, is now a fourth grader at a California Christian school. A book about his life titled David, co-authored by his mother, has just been published, and an NBC-TV movie is planned. David and his mother now live in Orange County, Calif. where she works as an administrative assistant at a manufacturing company. Marie Rothenberg talked with correspondent Mary A. Fischer about the tragic event and her son's heroic struggle to survive.

The day Charles came to pick up David was particularly strange. Charles acted jittery and was in a rush. He said he was taking David to a resort in the Catskills. I always felt if I let Charles have David whenever he wanted, kidnapping would be out of the question. So I always said yes. And to be honest, I was relieved that Charles was taking David for a week so I could have some time to myself. David ran out of the house so happy to see his father. That was the last time I saw David the way he used to be.

But I had a feeling something was wrong. I tried calling Charles's apartment. When I got no answer for several days, I tried Luchow's restaurant in New York where he worked as a waiter. The manager told me he had fired Charles and was looking for him too. They caught him stealing, and he had vandalized the restaurant. I was getting more upset each day, wondering if David was all right. Then my boyfriend at the time remembered that the Catskills were still closed for the winter.

I went to Charles's apartment thinking maybe David was locked inside. The landlord let me in, and a neighbor said she used to hear Charles scream and yell at David all the time. When he cried out for me, Charles would tell him to shut up. The neighbor said she found pictures of David ripped to shreds in the garbage can.

I called the police, and detectives were put on the case right away. I had a hunch he was in California, maybe near Disneyland, since David always wanted to go there. When I went to work the next morning I got a telephone call from Western Union. The operator reading Charles's message started to cry. I had no idea how bad the "accident" was. My boss had learned the details but he didn't want to tell me for fear I wouldn't make it to California in one piece When I saw my boss cry I screamed "My baby's going to die." My boss paid for two airline tickets and my boyfriend and I took the first plane out I didn't think I'd make it in time to see David alive. That was my main goal: to see him once more before he died.

When I went into the hospital room, I didn't think it was David because he was so badly swollen. He was three times his normal size; his head was like a huge balloon. I thought it was a teenager in the bed. He was bandaged from head to toe and smeared all over with creams. His eyes were so badly burned they popped out of his head. His fingers were black and bloody, and his lips were gone. He was conscious but couldn't see or talk.

I had never seen anybody suffering to that extent. I felt that he should die. I couldn't imagine a human body being able to repair itself from so critical a condition. I couldn't imagine him living. I felt that the quicker he went, the faster he would be in heaven. "Let him die," I thought. "Leave him in peace." Charles had done it because he didn't want me to have David. He would have rather seen his son dead than have him returned to me.

To take the burned tissue off, the doctors put David in a whirlpool containing a bleach solution and brushed off the bad skin. In the beginning they used pigskin and cadaver skin to cover him temporarily by stapling it to him. When he was surgically ready for real skin, the doctors took the top layer of skin from parts of his body not burned and laid it on him in mesh graphs. Later that would grow together. It had to be his own skin because the body won't accept foreign skin.

David guessed it was his father who had done this. He asked why, and I told him his Daddy was very sick. I concentrated on making David feel loved and secure, and I insisted on being with him all the time.

I had met Charles when I was 20 and was attracted to him deeply. I had grown up in a troubled home. My mother was an alcoholic and would sometimes get physically abusive to my sisters and me. She hospitalized me once with a dislocated hip.

I felt for Charles because we both came from broken homes. I thought we'd both work hard to build what we had never had in our early years. But that backfired.

From Day One, our marriage was a disaster. He started abusing me and going out with other girls almost immediately. During my pregnancy he flirted with other girls. When David was born, Charles became obsessed with him. I no longer mattered. I was just the maid and had better do what he said or else. One night when David was crying, Charles pushed me against the wall and pulled the front of my nightgown off. He got me to the floor and kicked me and said if I ever made his baby cry again he'd kill me I was afraid to leave him until he finally got arrested for forgery and was put in jail That's when I divorced him in December 1978

It wasn't until three months after the fire that David was out of the woods. But then two months later he almost died. He was to go in for surgery to put skin on top of his head. David didn't want this operation because he felt if his head healed on its own there'd be a possibility he'd have hair again. He went into the operating room very upset. When I came to see him, I learned he might not be normal again. His brain had swelled with fluid. He was in a coma and was having convulsions. He could not see or speak. It was another miracle that he survived this.

Nine months after the incident, David was released from the hospital. A wheelchair was brought to him, but he refused to use it. He said he didn't want anyone to think he was a baby. He went back to his old school in Brooklyn and the kids cheered him like he was their hero. Out here where we decided to resettle, the children reacted to him beautifully. His new classmates had been praying for him.

From the beginning I tried to instill faith in God in him, and I think this is what has helped both of us through. To survive all this I knew I had to have faith in a higher force. I told David that he was loved and his suffering was not in vain. There was a good reason for his living, I told him, and it was to show people how to accept each other for what they had on the inside.

When we go out in the world there are a lot of people who are very cruel to him. People will say, "Oh, my God, did you see that?" or "What an ugly kid." David doesn't care. It's hard to believe, but he has never once felt sorry for himself. He says, "Mom, God gave me three chances to live. The first one was in your belly. The second was when I was saved and the third will be up in Heaven. And I have to make these the best I can." This child has more character and strength than I ever will. I admire and respect him more than any other human being.

Although he shows absolutely no sign of emotional problems, I make sure he has good psychiatric care because you never know what could be brewing inside. I've stopped his physical therapy because he's such an active child on his own. He has trouble buttoning his shirts and tying his shoe laces, but that's about it. He's like everybody else except that he looks different. I don't think about the incident when I'm around David. I don't really notice his scars.

When he's been away for a while or I see old pictures of him, that's when I get sad and depressed. But I tell myself I have actually been lucky. Because I have been blessed with a son like David.

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