More than three decades after his heroic efforts during a tragic house fire in Cumberland Beach catapulted him onto the national stage, Joe Philion has died in a Vancouver hospital. He was 48.
On the morning of March 10, 1988, Philion hauled his younger brother, Danny, out of bed before running back into the family’s burning home in an attempt to save his mother, Linda Hawkins.
The teen didn’t know his mother had left the house minutes earlier to drive her husband to work.
Philion suffered third- and fourth-degree burns to 90 per cent of his body during his rescue efforts. He would never be the same.
He spent years at the Shriners’ Children’s Hospital in Boston while back home, the community rallied. They built him a house, complete with an elevator, that would allow him to be as independent as possible.
Not only did the family get a new mortgage-free home, a trust fund with $200,000 - all money raised through a local campaign that received donations from across the county - was created to help the family navigate the difficult days ahead.
‘Joey’ returned to a hero’s welcome; hundreds showed up when he finally came back to Cumberland Beach and the home the community had built for him.
But things did not go as planned. While accounts differ, in the end, the trust fund money was squandered, the family splintered, the house fell into disrepair and, after two mortgages were taken out on the house, it was lost.
Liza Bayev, Philion’s wife - the two had been separated but not divorced for 21 years - said losing the house was devastating; many, she said, blamed Joe.
“Sure, he made some poor choices, but he tried so hard to maintain that house and survive on his own,” said Bayev. “He didn’t want to disappoint all the generous people who” helped him.
She said he deserved a better fate.
“To me, he was a hero and I do not want people to forget that,” said Bayev. “He did not have an easy life, before or after the fire.”
When Philion lost the house, he spiralled downward and, for a time, lived in his car, says Bayev.
He also distanced himself from his mother during that time.
After a car accident made a bad situation worse, he decided to head west and was reunited with his mom, her new husband and his brother.
Soon after, his brother died from a drug overdose when he consumed some of Joey’s medicine.
Philion was then placed in a long-term care home “where he withered away from hopelessness,” said Bayev.
A national story about Philion in 2009 said he was near death. While Philion hung on, his mother died not long after.
But Philion was a fighter. With the help of a determined social worker, he was able to regain his strength and was eventually able to live on his own - with help.
Then, he had an accident while driving his electric wheelchair “which resulted in amputations,” Bayev explained.
Despite it all, “he moved forward, happy, joking, asking after people, upbeat,” Bayev said.
“But make no mistake, as tragic as Joey’s life was, he left behind him a wake of wonder and people who love and miss him,” said Bayev.
One of those is Kathleen Keating.
“He inspires me,” said Keating, a friend. “He was always upbeat, asking after my son Chris. He had the best stories and smile.”
Bayev noted Philion won the first YTV Award for Bravery, which was presented to Joe by Jim Carey in 1989.
He was also made an honourary Snowbird by the Canadian Snowbirds, she said with pride, noting they created a manoeuvre called the Philion Roll to honour him.
“To me, he is still a hero,” said Bayev. “Those of us who love Joey are left behind just hoping to roll as he did: looking ahead, looking for the best and building others up.”
Philion passed away Wednesday morning at Vancouver General Hospital.