Like the proverbial phoenix, Tracey Bravant has risen from almost unspeakable tragedy to say “Today I count my blessings, not my losses.”
After suffering the loss of her entire family save for one younger brother in a raging house fire three decades ago, the Croton-on-Hudson resident is now happily married with a daughter and a successful career as an executive with an upscale footwear company in Greenwich. But most important to her, she helps many others through charitable initiatives and work as a volunteer counselor to burn victims.
A TRAGEDY UNFOLDS
Monday, Feb. 3, l987 changed her life forever.
“I was 14 at the time and living with my family — parents, two younger sisters and a brother — in Wantagh, Long Island.
“My brother, Terry, and I were asleep in our bedrooms on the lower level of our knotty pine home when I woke up coughing to see smoke in my room. I rolled out of bed, crawled up the stairs to the first floor and felt the closed door to the rest of the house. It was warm. Right away, I knew there was a fire.”
Tracey ran back downstairs to her brother’s room, got him out of bed and told him to stay close behind her as they went back up. “I opened the door and stepped into the hallway and saw the rest of the house was an inferno. I tried to open the back door to get out but the knob wouldn’t turn. My brother was screaming desperately for our father before dropping to the floor with carbon monoxide poisoning. Our bed clothes started to ignite.”
Still unable to open the door, Tracey threw herself on top of her brother to protect him as best she could before she, too, was felled by carbon monoxide fumes. Help finally arrived a few minutes later, with local firemen knocking down the door. But it was almost too late. Tracey and Terry both suffered cardiac arrest.
“They couldn’t save my parents, Terry and Sharon McSwigin, and my sisters, Heather and Jennifer, “Tracey says. “The house was engulfed in flames.”
The siblings were taken to two different hospitals on Long Island. “I was burned over 65 percent of my body and they didn’t think I would make it,” Tracey says. “My brother was less severely injured, with 20 percent burns.”
Tracey spent months in the hospital, amazingly not knowing her family had perished.
“They didn’t tell us what happened for months,” she says. “When I asked, I was told my family was in the hospital and doing well.” Facing a struggle for her life and a series of painful skin grafts, Tracey says she was too overwhelmed to question the staff.
After Tracey and her brother were released from the hospital, they went to live with her grandmother in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. Tracey received an award from President Ronald Reagan commending her for saving her brother’s life.
When the siblings finally were told the rest of the family was dead, they had two entirely different reactions.
“My brother was very, very angry,” Tracey says. “I was simply, totally numb. There was just a tremendous void. I was in denial and adopted this kind of positive, upbeat demeanor. I felt a responsibility to my parents. I felt I had to act happy for them.”
Tracey went on to graduate from the local high school, all the while undergoing reconstructive and cosmetic surgery on her scarred body and face. “I married my high school sweetheart, Joel Attis in 1998,” she says. “Ironically he became a New York City firefighter.”
Joel was deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and, even though they had a daughter, Sidney, Tracey says the marriage just “gradually fell apart” and was over when they separated in 2002. Tracey moved to Croton-on-Hudson with Sidney and began life as a single mom, working in human resources.
But she was soon to be the sole survivor of her original family.
“In 2006, I got a call from my uncle saying my brother had died at age 31, of cardiac arrest. He was living in Florida and was married with four children. I believe his drug use played a role in his death.”
Terry’s untimely death finally allowed Tracey to release her bottled-up grief. “I put aside my happy face and became something of a basket case,” she says. “Things got so bad I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. The staff said I was suffering a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The “Why me?” I had kept locked away finally burst out screaming. And as an added point of misery, I got fired from my job.”
HELPING OTHERS FIND NEW FOCUS
Tracey was at rock bottom emotionally when she was discharged from the psychiatric hospital. “After spending one long night praying to my Dad, I went to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla and simply asked at the admissions desk if I could help them with counseling burn patients. I told them my story of survival and, amazingly, they said they would welcome me as a volunteer counselor.”
Tracey started to visit the hospital’s burn unit on a regular basis and still does. “I truly love doing this,” she says. “The words just come pouring out of me. I feel I give the patients a perspective and they can see that if I survived, they can, too.”
Tracey became vice president of Human Resources and Operations for Marc Fisher Footwear in 2010. A few years later, in 2015, she married Andrew Bravant, a native of England.
“We had originally met in 2004 when I was traveling in Spain and kept in touch over the many years. I always thought of Andy as “the one that got away,” and Sidney really liked him. Amazingly, things worked out for us. He moved here and we married on Dec. 11, 2015. We are really in love and very happy together.”
Since that first visit to the Westchester Medical Center’s Trauma and Burn Center, Tracey has been inspired to reach out to others.
She founded a volunteer group called SOLE (Service, Outreach, Leadership and Empathy) at Marc Fisher.
“We have a dedicated core group and reach out regularly to a variety of organizations, like Kids in Crisis in Cos Cob, the Lower Hudson Valley Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and other groups that focus on autism awareness, domestic violence prevention and other causes. We also have a shoe sample sale once a year and donate the proceeds to a charity.”
Amid all of this, Tracey has found the time to write an inspirational book, “I Would Walk Through Fire for You,” yet to be published, and has been introduced to a screenwriter who is interested in her compelling life story as the subject of a possible film.
She has been featured on the “Dr. Phil” show and the A&E show “I Survived.” She also received an award from UPS for being an “Inspirational Woman,” presented at Madison Square Garden in 2014.
Through it all, Tracey says she is proud she has not allowed the tragedies of her life to defeat her. “My love of life has carried me through,” she says. “I am not jaded and do not feel like a victim. I love to give perspective to others who have suffered tragedy and loss. I know I am not alone in this. I have found hope and created a beautiful life in spite of everything. I count it as a blessing that the reality of my experience is now helping others and am pleased to be able to see my blessings grow.”