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A Long Path to Recovery for One Ghost Ship Fire Survivor

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The Ghost Ship warehouse fire started Dec. 2, and it burned well into the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 2016.

It may be out now. But it's not over. Not for Wendi Maxwell.

"Sam used to always say to me, 'The only way out is through.' I believe that's what got him out of the fire. And I believe that's what will get him through this long recovery," said Wendi Maxwell, Sam's mother.

In a fire that killed three dozen, Sam Maxwell is a survivor. The theory is that he lived by crawling out, on his hands and knees, in the choking smoke, clutter and darkness, feeling his way toward any exit he could find.

"We have no idea how much he remembers. We know he has horrific nightmares," Wendi Maxwell said.

Sam Maxwell has been asleep for a long time. For five weeks, doctors kept him in a coma to prevent further damage to his lungs and breathing. It was a decision made as his condition deteriorated in the hours after the fire.

Wendi Maxwell remembers calling the doctor from her Stockton home in those hours.

"I hadn't had a chance to see him. And the Doctor said, 'How far away are you?' And I said, 'An hour and a half.' And she said, 'I'm sorry. I can't wait.'"

They came anyway, from their Stockton, California, home. Sam's parents came to be by their son's side, in hospitals in Oakland and then San Francisco. And they've stayed as the weeks and months have piled up and the road to recovery has, at times, seemed so long.

"The first time I saw him was that night hooked up to a ventilator, and tubes, and monitors and IVs. And then he stayed that way for five weeks," Wendi Maxwell recalled.

They sat by his side through three bouts of pneumonia, a heart problem and a sepsis infection.

Sam Maxwell is doing better now. Doctors have woken him up, and he's learning to speak again.

He hasn't yet asked about friends he lost that night.

Doctors expect that his recovery will be a full recovery. But the path forward through the other problems cast in the light of this fire may be tougher to find.

"I'm furious that there are brilliant people like my son, productive people, who are engaged in making their community better, and they're living in substandard housing because they can't afford to live in a house," Wendi Maxwell said.

Success now comes in little steps for Sam Maxwell. Today he was able to get out of bed, sit in a wheelchair, work on brushing his own teeth and washing his own face.

All the while, his parents say they will be there for him and with him, whenever he needs, so he knows he's not doing it alone.

The Maxwell family has established a YouCaring campaign to help with Sam's recovery costs.