Like all firefighters, Pat Hardison, 41, knew the risks involved with his job but did it anyway. Sept. 5, 2001 started as any other day. Hardison, who was a captain of the local volunteer fire department in his hometown of Senatobia, Miss., and a local businessman, got up, kissed his then-wife and their three kids, and headed off to the firehouse. That afternoon, he executed a rescue mission with three other firefighters that would forever change his life.

“It was terrible,” Hardison, told Nightline. “I mean, I left home one day a normal dad, leaving to go to work, just a blonde-haired, blue-eyed — that had everything going, I thought, and just like that, everything changed drastically.”

Although Hardison remembers entering the building in response to a house fire, he doesn’t remember much after that. The ceiling of the house collapsed shortly after the volunteer firefighters entered the building. He has no idea how he escaped, but he knew he didn’t get out unscathed. Hardison’s mask had melted to his face. His face was so unrecognizable that his fellow firefighters didn’t know they were working on him until he grabbed one and told him to take care of his family.

“He pulled me down over his face… and said, ‘you got to take care of Chrissi and the kids,’ and my world shut down,” said Bricky Cole, Hardison’s friend and fellow firefighter. “You never think it’s going to happen to you or yours. We closed the door on that ambulance and I figured it was the last time I would ever see him alive.”

Thankfully, Hardison ended up surviving his harrowing ordeal but would go on to spend the next 63 days in the hospital recovering. His entire face, including scalp, ears, eyelids, nose, and lips, were gone. Around 70 surgeries over the course of 10 years only resulted in minor changes. His three children, who were 6, 3, and 2 at the time of his tragic accident, were terrified to even look at their father. He ultimately found himself suffering from depression and addicted to his pain medication after years of painful operations that did very little to improve his appearance.

Finally, in 2012, Hardison started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A friend put him in touch with renowned reconstructive surgeon Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who just that year had replaced the face, jaw, and tongue of a man in what was considered the most extensive face transplant at the time. Rodriguez and his team at NYU Langone would spend that next two years making sure Hardison was the right candidate for surgery, he understood the potential risk, and he could handle the postoperative requirements. Then it was time to find a suitable donor that matched his skin color, hair color, and blood type.

“The blood type obviously has to match,” Rodriguez explained. “We didn't want any viruses. We're not looking for any patient that has significant exposures, I.V. drug use, and the like. We also look at tattoos, not so much that tattoos are bad, but individuals that get numerous tattoos, we're concerned about contamination of any form. We're looking for a patient that has not had any malignancy and no facial injuries. We're looking at skeletal measurements; we want them to match skeletally. We look at specific distances of their eyes or nose or mouth, the lips, so we're very specific in a face transplant.”

The next step in Hardison’s long journey happened in August 2014 when he was put on the transplant donor list in New York. Helen Irving, president and CEO of LiveOnNY, a nonprofit organization that matches organ donors with patients around New York City, called Hardison’s case “the most difficult search that we've ever done.” In July 2015 — 11 months after being put on the organ procurement list — Hardison learned that he would begin going under the knife next month after the organization found a donor. Following a 26-hour operation on Aug. 14, 2015, Hardison looked in the mirror and for the first time in 14 years was able to touch his lips, nose, and eyelids.

Today, Hardison continues to recover from the extensive operation in New York, even though he misses all five of his children back in Mississippi. Not only has his physical appearance started to return to normal, but he has also found a renewed sense of confidence. He even managed to go out in public — something he thought he would never do again — without feeling ostracized. He is, however, getting back into the shaving routine after 14 years without a beard.

“I was asleep one night after I had just got out of surgery,” Hardison said. “I was laying there, and I think this ear was itching and I went to pull on it thinking, I was going to take it off, and I pulled, and I was like, ‘oh, that doesn't come off.’”