When Davide Weaver awoke the morning of March 28, 1996, flames wreathed the top two floors of the Soulard apartment building he called home. Smoke choked the air of his bedroom.
Weaver's girlfriend, Brandy Wilson, lay in bed beside him. But no matter how hard Weaver tried to move her, she remained still. His own limbs felt sluggish and heavy, and even as he gasped the thick air, panic mounting, he realized it was too late. Wilson had already inhaled too much smoke. She was dead.
He almost gave up right there.
"It's a really bad St. Louis story, I don't know how to describe it any other way," Weaver recalls on a recent afternoon. Seated at a table in the corner of Beatnik Bob's, the throwback café in City Museum, the 44-year-old artist rubs at the lattice of scar tissue covering his left arm. Tears gather at the corners of his hazel eyes.
"I have no idea why I woke up with that much smoke. It should have killed me," continues Weaver. "I was trapped in the third floor. When I tried to escape and go down the staircase, I went straight into the middle of the heart of the fire. That's when I took on the fight of my life."
Weaver was able to fight his way downstairs. He collapsed in the kitchen, where firefighters would soon pull him from the still-burning building. But he escaped at a terrible cost.
Doctors would place him in a drug-induced coma in order to treat the burns covering more than 70 percent of his body. His hands and arms were charred to the bone, necessitating multiple skin graft surgeries. He spent months in the hospital.
The cause of the fire was never determined, leaving Weaver with unanswered questions and a rolling grief that waned little in the intervening 20 years. But while the blaze consumed just about everything Weaver owned, it left him with two mementos of his previous life. The first was an Imperial AT-AT Walker, part of Weaver's collection of vintage Star Wars action figures.
The second memento was a fireproof briefcase, filled with dreams.