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updated: 10/3/2012 10:50 AM

McHenry County woman thankful bullet shrapnel wasn't deadly

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  • Renee Smith and her husband, Tony, a few days after a piece of shrapnel landed in her cheek. A backyard fire ignited two bullets Sunday night at their home near Johnsburg.

    Renee Smith and her husband, Tony, a few days after a piece of shrapnel landed in her cheek. A backyard fire ignited two bullets Sunday night at their home near Johnsburg.


Renee Smith didn't realize bullet shrapnel was embedded in her cheek until she went to the hospital on Sunday night.

Every day since, she's been thanking God for her life.

"Any other spot, it would have been deadly," said Smith, a married mother of three children who lives in an unincorporated area of McHenry County near Johnsburg.

On Sunday night, Smith, 36, and her husband had set up a campfire in their backyard on the 1800 block of Indian Ridge Drive. They were hoping to enjoy a nice, quiet evening with family.

Instead, the fire ignited two bullets unknowingly left behind in the yard about a month ago, and a small piece of shrapnel landed in Smith's left cheek.

Police said the couple were throwing garbage into the fire Sunday night when the bullets were discharged. But the Smiths dispute that account.

About a month earlier, she and her husband had taken bags of papers from friends that were meant to be shredded. They dumped one bag's contents into an open fire, she said. The couple didn't realize there were .45-caliber bullets in the same bag as the papers, and the fire discharged about 30 bullets.

Smith and her husband cleaned out the fire pit afterward and removed the bullet shells.

The Smiths didn't use the pit again until Sunday, when they invited family over for a campfire.

The fire was going for about four minutes when Smith took the rake and pushed brush into the fire.

That's when things got scary, she said.

"I heard the pop and felt something hit my face," she said. "I dropped to the ground. I saw blood, and I ran into the house."

The McHenry County sheriff's department and the McHenry County Fire Protection District were called to the home about 5:15 p.m. Sunday.

Police say the fire discharged two bullets. The second one went off while Smith was in the house tending to her face.

Smith initially thought she'd been hit by a rock. She was later taken to Centegra Hospital in McHenry, where doctors removed the shrapnel and used surgical glue to close the wound in her cheek.

"It's small -- it's like I got a piercing," Smith said.

Smith owns a cleaning company and returned to work Tuesday.

Rudy Horist, deputy chief of the fire protection district, said the couple will not face any citations for the fire, as it was properly sized and started in a fire pit.

The Smiths say they will never again use that fire pit, and they plan to dig another one elsewhere in the yard.

Meanwhile, McHenry County Undersheriff Andrew Zinke cautions residents to check the contents of anything put into a fire -- and to keep an eye out for hazardous materials and ammunition.

If you shoot target practice in your yard, don't rake or burn vegetation there. And if you clean around the areas where you reload, don't throw anything into the fire, said Les Albert, deputy director of the state fire marshal's office.

In fact, it's probably better if you don't burn garbage at all, he said.

"Gunpowder's an explosive material, and you just don't know when or where it will go off," Albert said.

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