Matchhead

Carlos Arredondo did the unthinkable with gasoline, a Marine van, and a propane torch. Two years later, he still burns.

By then, he was begging the Marines to leave, to end this nightmare, but they weren't going to leave him in such a state until his wife arrived. He went into his garage and brought out a five-pound hammer, walked toward the van and... threw the hammer to the ground. He ran to the backyard and dialed his son's recruiter, only to hear a voice on the other end say that the number had been changed. Nothing was making sense. Carlos went back into the garage.

The Marines later told police that they felt safest in the open, watching Carlos as they waited for Melida. Their decision was one of many things that might have gone differently that day. One of Carlos' friends might have soothed him on the phone. A chaplain might have come with the Marines. The Marines might have come at a time other than 1:45 on an afternoon that reached 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. They might have restrained the hysterical father or taken him inside.

Another possibility: Carlos might have been out of gas. Instead, he emerged from the garage with a red, five-gallon plastic container of the stuff, something he kept around to fuel the boiler on his pressure washer. He also brought out a propane torch. The Marines called 911. Again, he asked them to leave. They didn't, and to this day, Carlos wishes that they had or that they had knocked him on his ass, because, as he remembers it, the next thing he did was grab the hammer and smash out a window, slicing his wrist on the glass. His elderly mother came to take the gas away from him, but he took it back. Her mouth was moving, the Marines were pleading with him, but he was deaf. He opened the unlocked van door, put the gasoline in, found the hammer inside, and trashed the interior — the dash, a computer, a typewriter, all smashed. He threw pieces out and flung the hammer through the back window.

Carlos' legs, burned as badly as any place on his body
Tom Ervin
Carlos' legs, burned as badly as any place on his body
Melida Arredondo, Carlos' wife, stands where the burning van cooked the asphalt
Colby Katz
Melida Arredondo, Carlos' wife, stands where the burning van cooked the asphalt

Now there was only gasoline. He splashed the inside, the seats, the ceiling. Fumes swamped Carlos. He took the propane torch — and as his mother grabbed him to pull him out of the driver's-side door, a spark ignited: "FWWOOO-aaaHHHH," he says, describing the sound. The flames spewed like a wave in the ocean, and suddenly he felt a thousand needles hit him all over. He rolled in the grass in a neighbor's yard, and the Marines helped to extinguish him.

Melida arrived. Paramedics arrived. The media arrived. Carlos' phone, which had fallen from his pocket, rang. Someone handed it to Melida. It was Brian, from Maine. He had been watching the news and wanted to know what was happening to his father.

All Carlos could think when he was looking up at the helicopters overhead was, Oh my God, Oh my God. He cried out that he was sorry and kept asking for Alex. It rained.

Neighbors eventually cleaned up the debris. To this day, the street in front of 5430 Tyler St. bears a scorch mark.


Rain is falling outside, as it has for days in the Boston area, and Carlos has retired to the one-car garage in his two-bedroom house. It contains a collection of tools, no fewer than eight of Carlos' old crutches, a motorcycle that penury may soon compel him to sell, and, most prominently, a trailer bearing a full-sized, flag-draped coffin with a pair of Alex's combat boots lashed to the top. It will be a prop in the next morning's Dorchester Day Parade. "See these pieces of wood?" Carlos says, indicating some planks. "I will make a frame. I will put one over there, one more here, one more here. I got that on wheels. It's very important. I really want to be in this parade tomorrow."

After years of treatment, Carlos at first glance displays almost no signs of his injuries. A jutting jaw and curly black locks give him, at 45 years old, the look of a telenovela star, with a ropy physique built in part by riding bulls as a young man. The burn scars that peek from under his shirt are broad but pale, on par with a mottled suntan. His legs fared worse. The skin on his shins remains a sick shade of purple-brown, covered in spots, as though he had peeled the bark off the trunk of an old tree, as brittle and delicate as his emotions.

In his darker moments, he suffers sudden crying jags. In the console of his truck (which has 20 magnetic troop-support ribbons on its tailgate), he carries a bottle of prescription pills "for anxiety and also, you know, to get not too emotional," he says. Those emotions often keep him from working, though his garage brims with the tools of a handyman, and his barbecue-grill-sized pressure washer stands ready to clean rooftops. On this day, in early June, he hasn't worked in weeks.

But in his better moments, which are often, he exudes a Roberto Benigni-esque joie de vivre, born out of a childhood when his mother struggled just to provide bananas and potatoes. He doesn't share what he sees as an American tendency to whine about not having enough. "You have no idea, pal, you have no idea," he says. "Let me go play some soccer while you are crying."

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