DECATUR - A rodeo clown's colorful world suddenly went dark in Wise County.
Sam Claxton and his father had performed their act at dozens of rodeos across the Southwest. But when they came to Decatur, their comedy unexpectedly turned into tragedy.
Claxton and his dad were rodeo clowns for years. In one of their skits, shot on a home video camera, the Claxtons dealt with a malfunctioning grill. Their pyrotechnics included smoke and a sudden explosion, shooting flames six feet into the air.
"I was supposed to set the switch off, and it was supposed to go off," Claxton said. "It didn't."
So he tried to figure out what went wrong.
"I thought I turned my switch back off," he said. "I turned around and went back to the grill. And found my battery was unhooked. I hooked my battery up, and it went off."
His face went numb. He couldn't see.
A photo taken at Parkland Hospital shows gun powder embedded in Claxton's face and eyes. It took several days before he could see anything.
"I asked them if I still had eyes in my head," Claxton said. "Nobody would give me a direct answer."
After seven years of recovery, there are few signs of the trauma he endured from the accident.
"Sam had a lot of scarring, a lot of gun power resident, as you can imagine, having pyrotechnics blow up in his face with his eyes open," said Dr. Kevin Wells, Claxton’s optometrist.
Doctors urged Claxton to have corneal transplants. But Wells, an Oklahoma optometrist, had another idea. He wanted to do laser surgery on Sam's eyes.
"We discussed the option of treating the scar tissue would make him extremely far sighted, and then go back and treat the farsightedness with the same laser in refracted mode," Wells said. "Let him heal up. See how his vision was. And then, if he didn't have satisfactory vision, we could proceed with a corneal transplant."
Wells performed two surgeries. The first one removed scar tissue in Claxton's corneas, and the second reshaped them.
"I was really nervous doing the second one," Claxton said. "But that's what was going to help my vision. So I knew that was my only option."
The surgeries worked.
Three months later, Claxton's eyesight started coming back. Today, with the help of corrective contacts, he has 20-20 vision.
"He was young," Wells said. "He's healthy. And with a lot of prayer, he had a very good outcome."
The former rodeo clown, who now works in the oil fields of Oklahoma, says when he looks at the photo of his charred face, it reminds him of just how lucky he is.
"It makes me laugh," he said. "And think how lucky I am to make it through that."