Five days before Christmas 2005, Mike Ewart was jolted awake in the early morning by the piercing screams of his younger brother.
Ewart, then 15, his father, brother, sister and grandparents had been sleeping on the upper floor of their two-story house on a cul-de-sac in Valencia Hills.
A candle that had not been blown out after a Christmas party the night before started a fire on the first floor.
"We had smoke alarms but no batteries," Ewart said.
By the time he heard his brother's screams, the house was engulfed in flames.
Ewart went into the hallway seeking an escape route, but it was filled with blinding, choking smoke.
He stayed for more than a minute trying to open a stuck door to help his grandparents. It exposed him to more smoke and heat than any unprotected body can withstand for very long.
By the time help arrived, everyone had made it out of a house that would eventually burn to its foundation. His father, David, a renowned violinist, suffered severe burns. His grandfather was burned on his face and hands and hurt his hip falling.
But the most injured of all was Ewart, a soccer player and swimmer at Newhall Hart High, who had burns over about 40% of his body and damaged lungs from smoke inhalation.He was hooked to a respirator for 10 days and underwent four operations. He had skin grafted on his arms, upper body and face.
And yet, by late January, he was back at school, refusing to let anything prevent him from keeping up his straight-A average.
Sports, however, were replaced by five days of physical therapy each week. He worked on trying to get his new skin to stretch so he could extend his arms for swimming and for playing goalie in soccer. He wore a compression suit to control swelling and aid the healing.
Meanwhile, teammates looked to Ewart for inspiration. They knew he was wrapped up in bandages, and when they got tired during conditioning or sprained an ankle, they remembered that their teammate was going through a lot more pain without complaining.
"My biggest thing coming out of the hospital was I didn't want anything to change from what I was doing before," he said.
While nurses and others predicted he wouldn't be back in a pool for at least one year, Ewart was back swimming for his neighborhood team by the summer. He returned to the soccer field in the winter of 2006.
"The first time I got back into the water was pretty scary, and I was pretty upset because I couldn't swim much," he said. "It was the newly grafted skin. When it gets grafted, it shrinks, and it takes time and therapy to expand."
The lanky 6-foot-2 Ewart started for the junior varsity soccer team last season and swam for the JV team. And, more important, he founded a nonprofit organization -- MESAFe, which stands for the Michael Ewart Smoke Alarm Foundation and is dedicated to raising smoke alarm awareness in the Santa Clarita Valley.
He has spoken to adults and teenagers, handed out batteries, smoke alarms and fliers, all to remind people that smoke detectors and batteries can save lives and prevent injuries.
He also serves as a lifeguard and helper at a camp that is organized four times a year by the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital for children 4 to 16 who survived burns.
"He's a remarkable boy," said Dr. A. Richard Grossman, who founded the burn center. "The children look up to him."
Meanwhile, as Ewart walks around the Hart campus carrying a backpack like any other student during his senior year, he continues to leave a lasting impression on those he meets.
"He really is amazing," swim Coach Steve Neal said. "His attitude is he's never felt sorry for himself or made excuses. He makes his deeds speak for themselves."
On Thursday, Ewart will be among 24 students, coaches, officials and administrators honored as part of the Southern Section's "Champions for Character" luncheon in Long Beach.
Each of the honorees was selected for demonstrating the six pillars of character: trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Ewart hopes to study biomedical engineering at UCLA or USC and become a pediatrician.
"After experiencing how difficult it is for children and teenagers to recover from an accident, I want to help them," he said.
Ewart is an honest, humble and driven 17-year-old who is making a difference. His lungs are only 60% to 70% capacity and the skin grafts on his arms are visible for all to see, but these obstacles don't faze him.
"Life isn't fair," he said. "And whatever comes my way, I just have to do the best I can."
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun