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Prior to the first in a series of reconstructive surgeries, Dylan Birch's doctor took this photo of his patient displaying the hand he mangled in a rocket-building accident. (Peter Cheney)
Prior to the first in a series of reconstructive surgeries, Dylan Birch's doctor took this photo of his patient displaying the hand he mangled in a rocket-building accident. (Peter Cheney)

Globe Focus

Repairing a blown-up hand Add to ...

By Grade 7, Dylan Birch was chasing the dream that would nearly kill him. He collected pencils, aluminum pop cans and a sheet of sandpaper - the materials for his first rocket.

The pencils would be hollowed out, then filled with a homemade fuel propelled by the powdered aluminum that Dylan manufactured by sanding down the cans. His father managed a Canadian Tire store, so tools were easy to come by. And, in the age of the Internet, so was the knowledge - Dylan studied the website of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, soaking up the rudiments of rocket science.

"It was all there," he says. "All you had to do was look."

Dylan was a born inventor, an adolescent Leonardo da Vinci who loved nothing better than building a solar-heating system for his parents' new pool or designing an airplane online with Google Sketch-Up. Now, he was obsessed with rockets.

His early, pencil-based models were powerful enough to shoot a skateboard across his parents' driveway, but Dylan wanted more. He scaled up his efforts, using cardboard mailing tubes for his rocket bodies instead.

By February of 2008, as he turned 15, Dylan was ready for the next step. His parents had just finished building their dream house, a beautiful two-storey building on a treed lot outside Pembroke, Ont., in the Ottawa Valley. It was a Friday night, the start of March Break, but Dylan wasn't out partying. Instead, he was in the basement workshop, a perfect place for a teenage inventor, with workbenches, bins filled with mechanical parts and rows of neatly racked tools.

Dylan had discovered a length of large-diameter copper pipe the plumbers had left behind - in his mind, it was a home-made Apollo booster. He made a rocket nozzle from a steel nut, crimped the top of the pipe shut and set out beakers filled with homemade rocket fuel. On his science teacher's advice, he had started wearing a clear, plastic face shield and respirator. He slipped them on and started loading the fuel.

It had to be packed into the rocket without gaps that could disturb the combustion process. Dylan decided to try a new technique, feeding in the fuel with a power drill running in reverse - the bit acted as an auger, dropping in the aluminum powder like grain running into a silo. He held the rocket in his left hand, his thumb wrapped around the copper pipe.

In hindsight, the events of the next few seconds are easy enough to predict. But not for a boy obsessed with an ongoing experiment, with a sense of teenage invulnerability.

There was a burst of white light and Dylan found himself in a strange world of silence and altered vision - as he would later learn, his contact lenses had fused onto his eyeballs. The drill had generated a spark, instantly igniting the fuel. The pipe exploded into razor-edged shrapnel that flew through the workshop.

A chunk the size of an iPod Nano blew into Dylan's thigh, ripping through the muscle and tissue before smashing into the bone of his femur. His face mask was glazed with blood and atomized tissue, and the air was filled with white smoke, but Dylan caught a glimpse of his left hand - the thumb and fingers appeared to be gone and white bones stuck out like the frame of a shattered umbrella.

Dylan moved toward the basement stairs, trailing a river of blood. His brother met him at the landing. His mother was calling 911.

For Dylan, that day in March, 2008, was the beginning of a medical odyssey that has yet to end. His accident plunged him into a world he never knew existed - of advanced physiotherapy and high-tech hand surgery.

He spent months in the hospital, undergoing a series of operations to save his life and stabilize his ruined hand. Five stainless-steel pins were driven through the remains of the hand's shattered skeleton, holding it together so bone and tissue could reassemble themselves as best they could.

For weeks at a time, he was on powerful painkillers that induced strange visions. The pattern in a hardwood floor swarmed with living figures, like a Hieronymus Bosch frieze; or, he was shackled to a table at Area 51, where aliens gradually stole his body parts as if he were a stolen Porsche in a chop shop.

Then there was one where he had two perfect hands. "They were my hands," he says. "The way they used to be."

Web of destruction

Although young people often have injured themselves playing with explosives, the rise of the Internet has both accelerated the pace and upped the damage.

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