On Oct. 27, 2018, Dillon Dreher, a welder’s assistant from Greeley, Colo., was working with a crew at an oil field near rural Briggstown, Colo., when a power tool he was using threw off sparks, causing a massive oil tank to erupt in flames. He was airlifted to North Colorado Medical Center with burns over 65 percent of his body.
The last thing he remembers before losing consciousness in the helicopter was reciting the phone number of his girlfriend, Derae Caro, to a Flight for Life emergency worker. They had gotten into a fight that morning and he wanted her to know he was sorry.
“Saturday was normally my day off, and Derae wanted me to stay home and hang out with her and Lilly,” he said; Lilly is Ms. Caro’s 5-year-old daughter. But Mr. Dreher had gone to work because he couldn’t let the idea of an extra paycheck go. Christmas was coming, and he had his sights set on playing Santa. “I was working all the overtime I could, because I had it in my mind that Lilly was going to wake up on Christmas morning and there would be this avalanche of toys,” he said.
Instead, for the next several months, there was an avalanche of grief among Mr. Dreher’s loved ones, who were given no guarantees initially that he would survive.
Mr. Dreher, 25, met Ms. Caro, also 25, in 2007, when both were at Heath Middle School in Greeley. “We hung out around school and would write notes and stuff,” he said. She was his first kiss. By high school, both had moved on. Then, in 2016, two years after Mr. Dreher graduated from Northridge High and Ms. Caro had earned her high school equivalency diploma, he stumbled across her on Snapchat.
“I added her, I guess because I remembered that she was always fun to be around and she’s pretty,” he said.
Ms. Caro, unemployed, a new mother and recovering from a relationship she described as abusive, wasn’t feeling much like her fun sixth-grade self. “I was in a very, very dark place,” she said. Mr. Dreher’s decision to reach out to Ms. Caro momentarily returned her to the innocence of adolescence. On Feb. 6, 2016 — both remember it was the day before the Broncos won the Super Bowl — she agreed to meet him for a reunion at the local Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
“We instantly caught up on everything,” Ms. Caro said. “We didn’t want to stop talking or leave each other’s side.” Within two weeks, Ms. Caro and Lilly, then eight months old, moved into the Greeley condominium that Mr. Dreher was sharing with his older sister, Danielle, and her boyfriend. One month in, they found their own apartment in nearby Loveland.
“From the first time we hung out, he made me feel like a diamond,” she said. “He opened doors for me. He was my knight in shining armor.” Mr. Dreher’s gallantry was especially on display with Lilly. “She took my breath away,” he said. “I had never held a baby before.” By the time of the accident, Lilly was calling Mr. Dreher Daddy and Mr. Dreher was introducing her as his daughter.
And then, in the space of a fiery moment, Ms. Caro had cause to worry they might never refer to each other that way again.
“I still get anxiety every time I hear a helicopter,” Ms. Caro said. Mr. Dreher can no longer tolerate being woken up in a hurry. “I get scared,” he said, because it brings back the blurry aftermath of the explosion. “I remember someone shaking the hell out of me, and then I remember getting up. I don’t remember if my shoes were on, and I don’t remember walking to the helicopter. I remember looking at my shirt and seeing it was real tattered up. After that it was all just bad dreams.”
Some of them took place during the 31 days he was in a medically induced coma. In the helicopter, he was sedated and intubated; rescue workers thought he had scorched his lungs. When he reached the hospital, doctors told Ms. Caro he would need to fight sepsis and pneumonia, as well as the possibility that his organs would shut down. If he clung to life, she was told, she should expect Mr. Dreher to be in the hospital three or four months.
“For the first few weeks I kept asking, ‘When are we going to know if he’s going to make it?’” Ms. Caro said. “But they wouldn’t tell us. They would just say, ‘We have to see how his body handles it.’” When Mr. Dreher’s kidneys failed, she crumbled. When they came back, she leaned into her last shreds of hope. “I was like, Dillon’s a fighter. He’s in there somewhere fighting.”
Whether he was fighting for a return to her and Lilly, though, she wasn’t sure, even though she turned up evidence of his devotion while he was in the coma.
Two days after the oil field accident, the company Mr. Dreher was working for, Mallard Exploration, returned his phone to Ms. Caro. “It was cracked and I wasn’t sure it would work, but it turned on,” she said. She started scrolling through texts and found an exchange with Mr. Dreher’s best friend, Jayce Montoya, from the day of the explosion. Mr. Dreher had already given Mr. Caro a promise ring. The texts were about a next step: buying an engagement ring from Kay Jewelers, where Mr. Montoya worked.
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“They were talking about how Jayce was going to buy the ring on his credit card, and Dillon would pay him back,” she said. “But he was still in a coma and I didn’t know if he was going to remember me when he woke up.”
At first, he didn’t. He thought she was a nurse. He recognized his parents, Terry and Ronda Dreher of Greeley, but had misconceptions about them. “I must have had some delusion in my dreams, because I was thinking it was their fault I was in the hospital, like they wouldn’t let me leave. It really confused them.”
Lilly had been asking for him since the accident. “She was sad and confused, and she was spending a lot of time with my mom and grandparents because I was always at the hospital,” Ms. Caro said. Just after he emerged from the coma, they arranged a visit. “They wheeled him out of the burn unit, and he was able to hold her.” By then, the mental fog of the coma was dissipating, and Mr. Dreher was after what he called “a sense of normal.”
“I just wanted to see Lilly or Derae,” he said. He still couldn’t walk or talk. He credits the reunion with his daughter with his will to recover.
On his 37th day at North Colorado Medical Center, doctors released him from the burn unit and sent him to a live-in rehab center in Loveland. During the transfer, he told Ms. Caro he wanted to marry her. Without a formal proposal, they set a wedding date: June 28, 2019.
And then their lives unraveled a second time. Mr. Dreher’s parents, unsure whether Ms. Caro was capable of caring for him once he was released, hired a lawyer to establish guardianship. Mr. Dreher fought the legal proceedings. But recovering, even with his fiancée and daughter by his side, proved harder than he thought.
Christmas that year was not the bonanza Mr. Dreher had envisioned. “They let him come home for the day, but it was kind of pointless because he had to go right back to rehab,” Ms. Caro said. “We were just going through the motions.”
Mr. Dreher suffered from depression before the accident. By the time he was able to move back in with Ms. Caro and Lilly in February 2019, it had returned.
“Lilly would comfort me sometimes,” he said. “I’d be sitting there crying, and she’d come up and give me a hug.” There were other bright moments. On Feb. 23, he re-proposed to Ms. Caro, this time formally, and she said a tearful yes. But by May, depression got the better of him. He broke up with Ms. Caro and moved in with his parents in Greeley.
Ms. Caro was devastated a second time. “I could kind of feel that things weren’t going super great, and I knew he wasn’t mentally stable,” she said. “He was saying stuff like he wished he didn’t live through the accident. It was heartbreaking. I was questioning whether I could have done something differently. And Lilly thought she had lost her Daddy a second time.”
In August, Mr. Dreher’s depression showed signs of lifting. With help from a therapist he still sees, “I realized I had to accept what I was going through, and all that life had thrown at me,” he said. “I also knew that Derae deserved the best, and I wanted to always be there for her and Lilly.” By the end of that month, he had moved back in with Ms. Caro and Lilly and they set a new wedding date of May 8, 2020.
This time the coronavirus toppled their plans, though not their will. On Aug. 28, at Bella Sera, a wedding venue in Brighton, Colo., Ms. Caro and Mr. Dreher were married before 50 guests.
Ms. Caro, wearing a floor-length white dress from David’s Bridal with a heart-shaped neckline, was flanked by four bridesmaids. Mr. Dreher wore a royal blue suit with a pink tie and was attended by six groomsmen, including Mr. Montoya, the best man. Lilly was the flower girl. Liz Montoya, Mr. Montoya’s mother and a supporter of the couple as they navigated Mr. Dreher’s recovery, officiated.
After Ms. Montoya spoke about the couple’s instinct to always return to each other in the face of impossible obstacles, Ms. Caro and Mr. Dreher read handwritten vows. Through tears, Ms. Caro said, “I’m committed to loving you the rest of my life no matter what storm we go through.”
Mr. Dreher, also in tears, said he couldn’t love her more. “You’re the reason I keep pushing forward,” he said. Then he turned to the little girl he calls his daughter, for whom he had also written vows.
“I love you then, I love you now,” he said. “I’ll love you for a hundred years.”
On This Day
When Aug. 28, 2020
Where Bella Sera Event Center, Brighton, Colo.
Final Invites Ms. Caro walked down the aisle with her mother, Sarah Bordeaux, of Greeley. Ms. Bordeaux said she was relieved the wedding finally happened. “This was the third time we sent out invitations,” she said.
Finally, Forever Pink flowers and accents brightened the indoor wedding. Before guests were served a roast beef dinner followed by marble wedding cake, Ms. Caro and Mr. Dreher were presented as husband and wife from an indoor balcony.
Onward Mr. Dreher is still being treated for his burns. He undergoes Z-plasty treatments, a form of plastic surgery, on a near monthly basis. “Every surgery I get feels like three steps forward,” he said. He hopes to be cleared to work again in a year.
Nina Petrovic contributed reporting from Brighton, Colo.