RON MASS THOUGHT HE COULD OUTRUN the flames. Last Nov. 2, as his Jeep came over a hill on Old Topanga Road, 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles, he could smell wood burning and see smoke rising in front of him. By the time he entered nearby Deer Creek Ranch, where he had lived in a trailer for three years, fire was crackling through the brush across the road.
That was when Mass, 40, took a chance to save a friend. He raced down a hill to the ranch's guest house, where British screenwriter and director Duncan Gibbins lived. But Gibbins, 41, who directed Eve of Destruction, was hunting for his lost cat, Elsa, and didn't make it out in time. In minutes the galloping flames that would kill Gibbins sent Mass tearing back up the hill. There a blaze engulfed his Jeep, melting the tires. Mass jumped out and bolted for his life. As he ran through a 500-foot wall of flames, his hands beat the fire away from his head. "Everything was while," he recalls. "I got a boost, of energy. I knew I was going to live or die right there."
As Mass ran through the fire to the safety of the road, the skin on his hands and legs crumpled. More than 75 percent of his body was severely burned, including much of his face. Remarkably Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro was there to capture the image of Mass fleeing down the canyon road and—moments later—being doused by volunteer firemen Nicholas Durepo and Steven Shelp. (Ironically, the two were later suspected of selling the fire, but they have not been charged and maintain their innocence.)
The inferno would change Mass's life forever and so would Yaro's photo. It ran in the Times and on the news wires the next day, becoming the catalyst that would reunite Mass with the family he had not spoken to for 15 years.
When Phyllis Smith, 43, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, opened her local Valley Times the next morning, she saw the image of her younger brother running down the road. She screamed. Then she phoned her sister, Pat Anderson, 47, who lives in the L.A. area. "Ronnie is on the front page," said Phyllis. "They said he was burned."
Within two hours, Pal and another sister, Kathy Gallegos, 45, of Los Angeles, tracked down Mass at the Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, where he had been taken by helicopter. When they got there, he was bandaged and semiconscious. Infections coursed through his body, and his temperature fluctuated between 101°F and 104°F. "It was horrible," says Pat. "We were all in shock at finding him—and al finding him like this."
Eight days later, his father visited Ron, who was still not fully conscious. "Do you know what today is?" Bart Mass asked. "Today is my birthday." Phyllis, also there, recalls, "Ronnie reacted like he was trying to jump out of bed to hug him. My father had to calm him down and say, 'It's okay. You don't have to move.' "
For most of his youth, Ron had been a star in the Mass family. Born in 1953, he was the only son of Bart, now 83, and his wife, Amelia, 82, Cuban immigrants who would eventually own two Los Angeles coffee shops. He was a good student at John H. Francis Polytechnic in Sun Valley, and he helped out with the family business. But by the late '60s and early '70s, Ron had become a long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-Vietnam War rebel. His father hated his rock music and his friends from nearby Cal State North-ridge, where Ron studied. The pair were constantly at each other's throats. "My brother was artistic with the way he wanted to put out the food," says Phyllis. "My father was 'just fling the hamburger.' They always had these basic disagreements." Soon, Ron dropped out of college. Then after one blowup too many, says Ron, "I wanted my freedom, and I left." He was 18 at the time.
Cut off from his family by age 25, Mass eventually took a job as a cook in a vegetarian restaurant in Encino. While there, a woman he was dating introduced him to secluded, funky Topanga Canyon. After they broke up, she went East, and Mass decided to move to Topanga, where he has lived ever since. At the lime of the fire he was working as an equipment manager at the elegant New Age restaurant Inn of the Seventh Ray. "Topanga isn't on the grid," he says. "It isn't full of stoplights and convenience stores and people just trying to get somewhere."
Mass first discovered Deer Creek Ranch in 1989, when he was hired as an apprentice carpenter by art dealer Peter Alexander, 44, and his wife, Kiera Schlihs, 31, a real estate consultant. "It was quiet out there. It was beautiful," says Mass, who became a good friend of the couple's. Adds Peter: "Ron was so close to us spiritually, emotionally and culturally that he was part of our family."
As for his own family, Mass occasionally looked in the phone book to see where they lived, but he never made contact. "I didn't want to know if they had passed away," he says. Though his sisters talked for years about searching for Ron, they never followed through. Meanwhile Bart and Amelia Mass solemnly marked their son's birthday—July 31—each year. On these occasions Bart would become depressed, says Pal. "Me and Ron had had words, but it wasn't that he haled his son," she explains. "My dad was expecting Ron to come up to the door one day and say, 'Dad, here I am. I missed you.' Ron was expecting my father to go out and look for him. They were both waiting for the other to make the first move."
They might still be waiting had it not been for the fire. Arid, Ron says, he is grateful that they found him, even though it took a tragedy to do it. He has had surgery 35 times to remove dead and infected tissue or to graft skin onto burned areas—and he faces at least 20 more operations (Luckily his insurance has covered his $1.5 million medical bill so far, and a Ron Mass Emergency Fund has been established as well.) "You feel you don't want to live when you've got an illness that bad," he says. "You can't move, you're in severe pain, and all you hear is that it's going to be years of treatment to get back to normal." The support of his family, who maintained a vigil at his bedside, got him through his despair. "I don't think there has been any other single thing in my recovery that has helped me as much as reuniting with them," he says. "It has been unconditional. Just medicine alone isn't going to do it."
The director of the Burn Center says Ron's stubbornness also helped. His statement when he came into the burn center, says Dr. A. Richard Grossman, was, " 'I want to live.' That always stays with me. If you look his size burn and his percentage of burn, probably one in a hundred survive." It is a tribute to Mass's resilience and determination that on April 14 he was moved to the St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank and on June 1 will return to Deer Creek to slay with Peter and Kiera. There is nothing left of the main house, but they all will live in the guest house that Gibbins once called home.
Although Ron's mother, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has not been able to visit him, his Hither has been at his bedside frequently. On one such visit, father and son were able to heal (lie wounds of the past with words that each had been waiting to speak. When Ron asked for orange juice, Bart told him simply, "I'll get you anything you want, tell me, because I love you."
"I love you too," replied his son.
"That's all I wanted to hear," said Bart, And then he wept.
LYNDON STAMBLER in Sherman Oaks
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