Horribly Burned in a U.S. Raid, An Iraqi Girl Finds a Savior in Michigan

updated 07/28/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He got only a glimpse of her on the news, and Jim Thornberry's first instinct was to turn away. "It horrified me so much I turned off the TV," says Thornberry of the CNN report he saw in April about a 15-year-old Iraqi girl named Hannan Shihab, who had suffered ghastly burns as an indirect result of U.S. bombing. "I didn't want to see any more of that stuff." But the next morning Thornberry couldn't get the girl out of his mind. Perhaps because he has two teenage daughters of his own, he says, he decided to see what he could do to help. "I imagined the obstacles," recalls Thornberry, a railroad freight conductor from Davisburg, Mich., "but I felt, you're supposed to try."

And in this case, succeed magnificently. Hannan, who had third-degree burns over 20 percent of her body caused by a fire from a kerosene lamp jarred loose by U.S. bombing, desperately needed proper medical treatment, and almost none of the hospitals in Baghdad were functioning. Thornberry, 54, managed to get her all the way from her home in the Iraqi capital, where she lives with her parents and three siblings, to the U.S. and the hope of recovery. Says 17-year-old daughter Halley: "I think my dad is a hero."

Thornberry's first call, on April 16, was to the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center in Ann Arbor. He knew about the facility because his father, James, had been treated there 25 years before when he was severely burned in a house fire. "They basically saved his life," says Thornberry, a Vietnam vet who has raised four kids. In short order, he had a commitment from the center to treat the young burn victim without charge.

And that is where the big problems began. Thornberry didn't remember Hannan's name and had no idea how, assuming she could be located, he would get her out of Iraq. He phoned a well-placed buddy for help. "I tried to talk him out of it," says Steven Thompson, general chairman of the United Transportation Union. "I told him it was a lot of work and would cost a lot of money. Jim said he would mortgage his house if he had to."

Fortunately it didn't come to that. Over the next two days Thompson managed to track down Hannan, who lives with her father, Muayed Shihab Ahmed, 43, like Thornberry a railroad employee, and mother, Yusra Majeed Hilal, 42, a homemaker. Meanwhile Thornberry called his congressman, Rep. Mike Rogers, who jawboned the Pentagon—which dragged its feet for weeks—into picking up Hannan on May 4 and flying her and her mother to Germany, where they were able to catch a donated commercial flight to Michigan.

From the time of her injury, on April 8, Hannan had been treated at home almost exclusively by her mother, who cleaned the wounds with water and vinegar. "Her mom gave great care—the wounds were not infected," says Dr. Paul Taheri, her surgeon at the Michigan burn center. Still, the burns were so excruciating that the teen spent much of her time sobbing in agony. "I thought for sure I would lose my daughter," says Yusra. Once Hannan got to the burn center in Michigan, doctors were able to start performing skin grafts and other surgical procedures to restore some of the motion in the affected areas, especially her left hand. The teen is undergoing intense physical and occupational therapy that is likely to last years. (Her return to Iraq is at least several months off.)

Though Hannan will always bear scars—she'll have trouble using her hands and arms—Dr. Taheri remains optimistic that she can become a "functional member of society," adding, "The biggest advantage she has is her youth." For now, Hannan spends her time watching television and listening to music, everything from Madonna to Beethoven. Thornberry has visited the grateful girl and her mother several times in the hospital, delighted that the teen now has at least the chance for a normal life. "None of us can fix everything," says Thornberry. "I just did the little thing I was supposed to."

Bill Hewitt
Lauren Comander in Ann Arbor

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