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Current photo of Eric, Heather and Dylan

Near death following a 1998 bus fire in Madison, Eric Nelson and Heather Gallagher pieced their lives back together and now live in Kansas City, Missouri. In this recent photo, they are shown with their son, Dylan, 13. As victims of random violence, they are energized by today's youth movement responding to mass shootings, Nelson said. They welcome the national school walkout planned for Friday, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting and a day after the 20th anniversary of the Madison bus fire.

Eric Nelson battles pancreatitis flare-ups once or twice a year, and Heather Gallagher broke her hand last month from a fall while walking their two dogs.

The maladies are nothing compared to the severe burns the couple endured 20 years ago when a mentally ill man doused them with gasoline aboard a Madison Metro bus and set them on fire.

“The average person has no idea what they can deal with,” Nelson said. “We know how far we can be pushed and still take it.”

Nelson, 49, who nearly died after being burned on 97 percent of his body, and Gallagher, who suffered burns on 87 percent of hers, were engaged at the time, on April 19, 1998. After months of agonizing skin grafts and other treatments at UW Hospital, they got married the following year on a cruise ship in Miami.

The couple uprooted the next year to Kansas City, Missouri, where they and their 13-year-old son, Dylan, live downtown, near the University of Kansas Health System where Gallagher works in a lab and both of them get care.

Twenty years after their lives were radically altered by a random act of violence, they’re living with the strength of survivors.

They direct their anger at Salim Amara’s mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia, and not at the man, then 20 and homeless, who set them ablaze.

“Overall, we have forgiven Amara,” Nelson said. “We realize it was not Salim Amara who attacked us. It was his disease.”

Still, they were in disbelief in January when they heard from the Dane County District Attorney’s Office that Amara had, for the first time, sought release from Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. He eventually withdrew the petition.

If any future attempt gains traction, “we will be there for any proceedings,” Nelson said.

With his face marked by burn scars and his nose and an ear disfigured, Nelson has grown accustomed to public stares. Gallagher’s scars, while substantial, aren’t as visible.

“At times it can offend,” he said. “But most of the time, we just laugh at people’s ignorance.”

They find joy in raising Dylan, whose existence is a surprise, since the couple wasn’t thought to be able to conceive because of damage to their internal organs from the fire.

The sixth-grader likes “math, science, art, video games and YouTube,” his father said. The boy is “somewhat introverted but very bright — some would say gifted.”

Dylan is also becoming a typical teenager, Nelson said. “We’re at that age where anytime his parents tell him something, we’re ruining his life.”

Not bothered

by small stuff

The couple hasn’t had any burn-related surgeries for many years. But Nelson’s pancreatitis, which causes digestive problems and may have started during his treatment in 1998, puts him in the hospital roughly once a year.

A titanium rod is keeping Gallagher’s right hand — onto which UW surgeons attached a toe they amputated from her left foot, to replace the thumb she lost in the fire — steady as her bones heal from her recent tumble.

Nelson is on disability, but does some unpaid audio equipment consulting for artists in Nashville and on the East Coast. In the past year, he has been caught up in the national effort to curb opioid abuse.

Doctors cut the dose of his fentanyl patches three times, which led to withdrawal, and may reduce his use of the prescription painkiller Norco. That has left him with more constant pain, but Nelson said he’s going to the gym more often to release endorphins that provide some relief.

“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said, reflecting on the ordeal 20 years ago. “It makes it much easier to deal with the small things in life.”