Identical 22-year-old Texas triplets Chandra, Jordan and Trae Berns have spent their lives catching the eyes of strangers. "We've just kind of gotten used to — if people stare," Chandra said. But they're never sure if it's because of their matching features -- or something else they share.
If you look past the three beautiful girls' hair and makeup, you will see that scars and burns cover their arms, hands, faces, backs and chests.
The triplets understand the looks that they receive when they go out in public. "When you see something different ... it's hard not to look," Jordan said. "So, you know, we don't blame anybody for looking or whispering or wondering."
It's said that every scar has a story -- for the Berns triplets, that story begins with innocence and joy. Born in 1987 to proud parents Scott and Patti Berns, the triplets have always been inseparable. As babies, they dressed in matching outfits, and were so close that they would climb into a single crib at night and sleep in each other's embrace.
That's where they were Sept. 21, 1988, only 17 months old, when flames suddenly and inexplicably engulfed their North Richland Hills, Texas, home. Their father, Scott, rescued them through their bedroom window. Their mother Patti was found lying unconscious in a back room of the home. Paramedics raced her to the hospital in critical condition from smoke inhalation. She died three days later, at the age of 27.
"Our hearts were, you know, just broken," recalls the girls' maternal grandmother, Sue Dusek.
Meanwhile, the girls, too young to understand their enormous loss, continued their own battle to survive. "They were so bad we didn't know if they were going to live or not. It was horrible, just very traumatic," said Dusek.
Miraculously, the girls survived, despite third-degree burns on a third of their bodies.
Eldest triplet Chandra had the most severe injuries, with burns on her face, arms and back. "What I've been told is that I probably, you know, got on top and was on top of the girls in the crib, so I got burned the worst," she said. Jordan was burned on her arms and chest, and Trae on her left arm and face.
The triplets spent their early years undergoing a long and agonizing recovery process, physically and mentally. Over several years, they underwent numerous surgeries, skin grafts, facial masks and courses of physical therapy. They even had to wear tiny compression suits to treat their burns.
"It was just horrible trying to put [the suits] on them because they would cry it would hurt. They would just cry knowing when you'd come at them with them. And my husband and I would cry too," said Dusek.
"It's probably one of the most painful things that anyone could, could have or experience on a daily basis," said Donna Crump, a physical therapist who treated the girls as infants.
Luckily, the triplets do not remember the agonizing pain they endured as toddlers. While the physical pain subsided, the emotional pain of growing up without their mother endured. "They didn't know anything about her. They didn't want to ask much about her," said Dusek.
The trauma would only worsen. When the triplets were 4 years old, prosecutors determined that the fire was not an accident, but arson, and charged their father, Scott, with setting the fire. He went to trial and was ultimately acquitted.