“When a family grieves together, a family heals together. And if one doesn’t heal the same way, they can help each other through it differently.”-Ethan Ruch, Alisa Ann’s brother
As we embark upon our 50th year of service in the burn community in 2021, we revisit the story of Alisa Ann Ruch. You may already be familiar with the story of Alisa Ann, an eight year old girl who tragically perished following a backyard barbeque accident, and whose name the organization proudly bears today. But you may be less familiar with Ethan, David and Frani Ruch, Alisa Ann’s siblings who were deeply impacted by the tragic death of their sister. A burn injury affects not only the individual who was physically burned, but also the entire family.
It was Memorial Day weekend in 1970, when the Ruch Family- Diane and Ernie Ruch, along with their children Ethan (10), Alisa Ann (8), David (5)- were celebrating with a small family gathering. Diane, who was pregnant at the time with her fourth child, and her sister Esther were in the kitchen preparing lunch, while Ernie and the children were in the backyard getting the barbeque grill ready. Ernie attempted to light the barbeque grill, with David and Alisa Ann close behind him, when a fireball erupted, shooting Ernie backwards onto David and Alisa Ann. All three caught on fire. Ethan, witnessing what had just happened, pushed his little brother David to the ground and rolled him around, smothering the flames.
Alisa Ann, scared and in pain, did not know what to do and instinctively ran inside to her mother. Hearing the screams and the commotion, Diane stood motionless in shock. Esther, a nurse, grabbed sheets and wrapped them around Alisa Ann to put out the fire. The family ran to the car to head off to the hospital. With two burn-injured children, Ernie who also suffered burns to his arm, Diane and her sister Esther, there was no room in the car for Ethan or his younger cousin. As they sped off to the hospital, the two young boys sat on the curb watching the car drive away. This would be the last time Ethan would ever see his sister, Alisa Ann.
The family rushed to the nearest hospital but were turned away due to the severity of their burns. They wound up at Sherman Oaks Hospital in Los Angeles, where David and Alisa Ann were immediately sent to the emergency room on separate gurneys. This would be the last time David would ever see his sister, Alisa Ann.
David remained in the hospital for more than three weeks and endured multiple surgeries until he was able to return home. Alisa Ann was given a 1% chance to live and fought for her life for five weeks until sadly she succumbed to her burn injuries. The Ruch family was faced with the unimaginable, the death of a child and the burn injury of another.
Diane and Ernie tried their best to provide a sense of normalcy for their family. Life went on. Frani was born in November 1970, just months after Alisa Ann’s death. David started kindergarten, Ethan continued to be a strong big brother, and in early 1971, Diane immersed herself into the creation of the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation as part of her healing. “I was selfish. I created the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation to keep Alisa Ann’s name alive,” Diane said about starting a nonprofit organization to support burn survivors and promote burn safety messages.
Despite the success of the burn foundation, with support from firefighters, burn care professionals, donors and volunteers, the entire Ruch family had a rough road ahead of them. Diane and Ernie ended their marriage and the children split their weekends between their parents.
David struggled in school, often being teased because of his burn scars and feeling angry about what had happened to him and his sister. When anyone would try to bully or make fun of David, he would respond with violence and anger. “I was always ready to fight. I had a lot of anger,” he recalled about his school years.
The youngest sibling, Frani, was always being compared to Alisa Ann. Relatives would tell her how much she looked like Alisa Ann, and her parents would occasionally accidentally call her by Alisa Ann’s name. She rebelled against these comparisons, feeling that she could never live up to the standards of Alisa Ann and feeling immense guilt about the loss of her sister. “I shouldn’t be so happy without her,” Frani thought.
Ethan tried to be a good older brother doing his best to take care of everyone, but inside he was suffering from the guilt of not being able to save his little sister Alisa Ann. Ethan did not want to relive or think about Alisa Ann’s death. “Every time I thought of her I would start crying. It was bubbling up. I guess I didn’t really heal from it.” David never wanted to talk about the accident or Alisa Ann. “I wanted to feel normal. I was trying to figure this all out on my own.” This underlying guilt and inability to talk about the tragedy led to a feeling of deep sadness and isolation among the siblings.
Ethan visited Alisa Ann’s gravesite for the first time in 1993, 23 years after her tragic death. “I sat there and cried my eyes out to say goodbye. It was very healing.” As an adult, Ethan attended numerous AARBF events including milestone anniversary celebrations, fundraisers and golf tournaments. He proudly brought his wife Joan, daughter Anneli, son Branden and grandchildren to the events. David and his wife Shelly also became more involved with the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, decades after the death of Alisa Ann. They attended fundraisers and represented AARBF in their community. David’s daughter Autumn Ruch became a Camp Counselor for AARBF’s Champ Camp, one of the world’s largest and longest running summer camps for burn-injured children, in 2019, the first of the Ruch family to do so. Frani and her children regularly attend AARBF holiday parties and events in Southern California, along with her mother Diane Ruch Host. She has provided entertainment and cheer for burn survivors and their families with her singing talent.
On August 2, 2020, the Ruch Family experienced yet another tragic loss with the passing of the eldest Ruch sibling, Ethan, from a massive stroke. “Losing Ethan is just absolutely beyond shattering,” said Frani. David expressed his deep sorrow for the loss of his sister and his brother, Ethan. The family once again has to endure a great loss, and Frani and David have to cope with the loss of yet another beloved sibling.
After Alisa Ann’s tragic death and David’s burn injury, “it was like moving mountains for our family to come together,” Frani said tearfully. “But the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation is the mountain where we came together.” From the unimaginable tragedy and pain the Ruch family experienced, came the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to significantly reducing the number of burn injuries through prevention education and enhancing the quality of life for those affected by burn injuries in California. AARBF’s programs and services support all those affected by burn injuries through therapy grants, support groups, peer support, financial assistance and recreational programs for the entire family.
Next year, AARBF celebrates its 50th Anniversary, and it is difficult not to recount the thousands of burn survivors whom we have served and the millions of Californians we have educated about fire and burn safety. But it is also important to remember Alisa Ann, Ethan, David, Frani and all of the individual lives that have been so deeply impacted by a burn injury. Burns are unlike any other type of injury. Burns can affect a person physically, mentally, financially, socially, psychologically and emotionally for an entire lifetime.