It was emotional graduation day for the survivor of a Texas apartment arson attack that killed five people, including two of his friends.
Zachary Sutterfield, 24, graduated from Angelo State University on December 10, four years after sustaining a brain injury and burns to 70 percent of his body in a fire at the Iconic Village apartments in San Marcos, Texas.
Photos and videos from the day show the moments he was congratulated by his family members and loved ones after four years of fighting insurmountable odds brought on by the unsolved crime.
The moment weighed heavy on Sutterfield and his mother, who sprinted through the crowd after the commencement and cried out: ‘You did it! We did it!’
Zachary Sutterfield, 24, celebrated earning his degree earlier this month, four years after he was badly burnt in an apartment fire in San Marcos, Texas
Nearly 70 percent of Sutterfield’s body was burnt in the apartment fire
Sutterfield was badly burnt in the July 19, 2018 fire that claimed the lives of Dru Estes, 22, Belinda Moats, 21, Haley Michele Frizzell, 19, David Angel Ortiz, 21, and James Phillip Miranda, 23.
Seven others were injured in the devastating fire which was ruled an arson and has yet to be solved.
The 24-year-old had been asleep when the blaze broke out, just a half a mile from Texas State University.
Just after 4.30am, Sutterfield woke up surrounded by flames with portions of his body on fire.
To escape, Sutterfield had to leap from the second story balcony of the apartment he was in.
The friends he was staying with, Frizzell and and Ortiz, both died in the blaze.
The fire at the Iconic Village apartments was set intentionally, according to law enforcement
It was a proud moment for Sutterfield and his family members who were unsure if he would ever be able to obtain his degree after the fire
‘I think it is a mixture of stubbornness and family willpower to get here,’ Sutterfield said of what motivated him to keep going
After the fire, Sutterfield said had ‘given up all hopes’ on his education after the fire as he had to relearn ‘everything from walking to feeding’ himself.
‘Double amputations, traumatic brain injury, passed away twice at the hospital,’ the Angelo State University alum said.
‘I pretty much told myself, “I’m never going to college. I’m never going to graduate,”‘ he continued. ‘Because at that point in time, I couldn’t even write my name. I didn’t have a thumb.’
Against all odds, Sutterfield – backed by his family, friends, and a massive support system – managed to enroll and take classed until he finally reached eligible graduation status.
Sutterfield’s friends, Haley Michelle Frizzell, 19, and David Angel Ortiz, 21, were both killed in the fire
James Phillip Miranda, 23, and Dru Estes, 21, were two of the five people killed in the blaze
Belinda Moats, 21, was also killed in the July 2018 fire
On December 10, the 24-year-old proudly walked across the stage as his family members watched him obtain his bachelor’s of arts degree in English.
Alongside his family was a large group of firefighters, nurses, and doctors, all watching him accomplish what once seemed impossible.
‘I think it is a mixture of stubbornness and family willpower to get here,’ Sutterfield said of what motivated him to keep going.
‘I wanted to walk across that stage. I wanted to take that diploma and really stamp out this chapter in my life that has been the most grueling years as a young 20-year-old.’
On December 10, the 24-year-old proudly walked across the stage as his family members watched him obtain his bachelor’s of arts degree in English
Alongside his family was a large group of firefighters, nurses, and doctors, all watching him accomplish what once seemed impossible
Julie Upton Schniers who worked with Angelo State University shared photos and videos from Sutterfield’s graduation to Facebook in a heartwarming post congratulating him for overcoming the obstacles.
‘Yesterday was the most BEAUTIFUL day! It was such a gift to watch Zachary Sutterfield walk the stage! There were so many incredible people who have been a part of his journey there,’ Schniers said.
‘Getting to celebrate with some of those that helped him in the very beginning was so touching,’ the Angelo State University employee said.
‘Being a small part of the journey has been an honor of a lifetime! We are ALL SO PROUD OF YOU ZACH!!’
The 24-year-old was surrounded by friends and family members on his graduation day
Julie Upton Schniers who worked with Sutterfield at Angelo State University said in a post on Facebook: ‘We are ALL SO PROUD OF YOU ZACH’
Sutterfield spent roughly a year and a half in medical facilities after the fire. To date, he has undergone 33 surgeries and faces more in the future.
His family decided to contact Angelo State University, the school his parents attended, as he was on the mend to see what, if anything, could be done to help him reach his goal of getting a degree.
‘We decided we should reach out to ASU to see if there was anything they could do to help me graduate with what I would want to graduate with,’ Sutterfield said.
‘We spoke to the English Department, and at the drop of a hat, they were like, “We can do it. We can make sure that he walks the stage with what he wants to pursue.””
The burn victim said Angelo State University worked with him diligently to help him reach graduation day
Sutterfield cut into a special cake during a celebration for his graduation
‘I hope that I can just be a beacon of hope for someone who’s going through what they’re going through,’ Sutterfield said
Sutterfield said the school and the English department ‘bent over backwards’ to get to him to graduation day, even as he underwent surgery after surgery.
‘They set up a program while I was in Florida for surgeries to be “in the classroom” They basically set up an iPad camera that works on a swivel so I could be in class. They did everything they could to help get me to this point.’
The newly graduated student says he hopes to use his education in his work with Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit that seeks to transform burn care for veterans, first responders and their families.
‘There is a huge lack of knowledge when it comes to what needs to be addressed when it comes to burn care,’ Sutterfield said. ‘We want to make it more available to the public eye and more accessible.’
Sutterfield is planning to use his degree for his work with Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit that seeks to transform burn care for veterans, first responders and their families
Sons of the Flag is a a nonprofit that seeks to transform burn care for veterans, first responders and their families
The burn victim advocate said he also looks forward to a brighter future after a rocky start to adult life.
‘I’m ready to start living my life, my best life. Not that I haven’t lived a great life so far, but you know, there are a lot of things I want to pursue that I can’t necessarily get done while juggling 16th-century British Literature,’ he joked while speaking with Angelo State University.
He also said he hopes he inspires others to push through their struggles and come out victorious in the end.
‘I hope that I can just be a beacon of hope for someone who’s going through what they’re going through,’ Sutterfield said.