7 years after life-altering fire in Unity, Sask., this man returned to thank firefighters for his life

Winnipeg man Leo Rocan says he always meant to return to Unity to say thanks to the first responders who saved his life. It took him seven years, but earlier this month, he was able to return and share his gratitude.

Firefighters weren't sure Leo Rocan would survive

Leo Rocan shakes hands with Unity Fire Department member Dwaine Kopp, who was one of the firefighters on scene when Rocan's van caught fire in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Sherri Solomko/Unity-Wilkie Press-Herald)

When Leroy Timmermans and his fellow firefighters carried an unconscious man away from a burning van on Oct. 15, 2012, Timmermans didn't have much hope the victim would survive.

"The last image we saw of him was a soot-covered body," the Unity fire chief told CBC's Afternoon Edition

Earlier this month, the man, named Leo Rocan, returned to Unity with a message of gratitude for the people that saved his life.

"It was very touching. It meant a lot to all of us guys there to see [Rocan] again, to see him doing much better than he was then," said Timmermans.

A life-changing fire

Rocan had moved to Unity several years ago and said he had fallen in love with the town, located about 190 kilometres west of Saskatoon.

He still isn't sure what led to the October fire.

"I personally think it was a candle I had in the van to keep myself warm, because I was living in the van at the time." 

The van began filling with smoke and heat, Rocan said, recalling how he covered his face and kicked at the back door before passing out. 

He wouldn't see the firefighters arrive on scene, or how their approach to the fire changed when they saw a pair of boots through the back window, or how they broke the windows to open the doors and free him. 

This month, Winnipeg man Leo Rocan (third from right) got a chance to meet and thank the Unity firefighters who saved his life back in 2012. From left to right are firefighters Allan Sopyc, Russell Fauth, Leroy Timmermans, Dwaine Kopp, Colby Klein and Travis Sopyc. (Photo courtesy of Sherri Solomko/Unity-Wilkie Press-Herald)

Rocan was put into a medically-induced coma, and later underwent surgery and skin-grafting to heal his burned and damaged body.

He said he lost most of one finger and function in others, while 40 per cent of his body is covered in third-degree burns. 

"The whole front of my body is scarred. My legs are usually in pain, my knees are in pain. My hands are throbbing all the time, my arms," he said. 

I think it helped a lot of the first responders that don't get the recognition they deserve- Leo Rocan on his visit to Unity

Despite his health challenges, Rocan says he's thankful to be alive and, due to his surgeries, he can still do most things. 

"I think I'm doing OK."

He's since moved back home to Winnipeg, but said he always hoped to return to Unity to thank people like Timmermans who had saved him. 

On July 7, he finally arrived back in Unity to shake the hands of those first responders who helped him that day nearly seven years ago. 

"It took a long time but I managed to get it done. That was something I had to do for me," he said, adding, "I think it helped a lot of the first responders that don't get the recognition they deserve." 


Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

with files from CBC's Afternoon Edition


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