The Fire

Dale E. Sperling

© Copyright 2006 by Dale E. Sperling


A young mother checked on her son and her cousin before retiring for the morning. The two boys, one aged two and the other three, seemed to be sleeping soundly as she kissed her son tenderly and headed off to the adjoining upstairs bedroom for some much needed rest. She emptied the contents of her jean pockets on the night stand and tossed the pants onto the chair in the corner. She crawled into bed and pulled the covers up over her. It is only a few minutes later when she heard the boys stirring around in their room and yelled for them to get quiet and stay in bed. Soon, she was drifting off to sleep.

She heard the boys yelling and figured they were fighting again. “Stop fighting and get back in bed,” she yelled. She looked at her watch and it was eleven am and she only been in bed fifteen minutes. "I really don’t want to get up and go in there she thinks.

Then she smelled something. She wasn't quite sure what it was and she tried to ignore it by pulling the covers higher over her head. Still, the smell wouldn't be ignored. Finally she realized what it is she smelled. Smoke!

She threw the covers off her, jumped from the bed fully alert now and opened her bedroom door. She did’t see anything but she ccould hear the boys yelling so she went to their room to quiet them down. When she tried the door handle it turned but the door wouldn't open. “What are you boys doing it there?”

She tried pushing on the door but it would not budge. Finally, she realized something was definitely wrong. She kicked the door as hard as she could. Thick black smoke rolled from the room like a dense fog blowing in from the ocean. She couldn't see anything in the room but she heard the boys crying. She forced herself to reach out towards the sound of one of the young voices and grabbed an arm! She pulled the body towards her and threw the child to her chest and turned to run downstairs, screaming for the others to get out of the house.

She pounded on her aunt’s door, screaming that the house is on fire and for them to get out. She ran as fast as she could once she heard her aunt stirring. She raced outside with the wailing youngster still pulled close to her.

Having heard the screams of the little boy, Diane Pegues, a neighbor, peered out her window to see what was wrong. Realizing that there is a fire, she hastily dialed 9-1-1. “There’s a fire at the Mark I Apartments on Grand Prix drive: she yelled into the phone. She then grabbed her newborn and retreated onto the lawn with the rest of the gathering crowd.

The mother of the other child tried desperately to gain access to the bedroom. She heard the cries of “Mommy.” Although she knew there was still a child in the room, she didn't know whose child it was and she wasn’t thinking about that at the moment. She hoped help would soon arrive because the pots and pans of water she and her houseguest, John Cassell, kept throwing into the smoke filled room seemed to be accomplishing nothing.

Finally, the screams grew quiet and she was coughing so badly from the smoke that she had to flee for her on safety. She saw the firefighters setting up equipment and told one of them that one child was still inside. Risking life and limb, they rushed to the room in hopes of saving a life.

Someone, she didn’t know whom, saw her standing there in her bed clothes and draped a warm blanket over her shoulders. Toni Harris then looked around to see if John and Tammy got out okay. She saw a woman holding onto a small child. She started making her way towards her when the medics pulled the child from Tammy’s arms and rushed Tammy to a waiting ambulance. She had
suffered burns on her arms and legs. The child, Tammy’s son, is taken to a helicopter that had just arrived. He needed to be rushed to the burn center.

Tyler was scared. The smoke was so thick it burned his eyes and he could no longer scream. The heat was horrific. In order to shield himself, he grabbed his toys and his blankets and packed them around him self. he no longer heard his mother calling out to him.

Recognizing Joshua, Toni realized something horrible. "That is my son that’s still in there." She started to cry.

In a few minutes, she saw some of the firefighters exit the apartment. “Did you find my son?” she pleaded. “Is he okay?”

The fireman looked at the panic stricken mother through his blackened smoke stained face. A white streak could be seen on the man's face where a tear had rolled down his cheek. He said nothing. He looked at the little boy's mother for a moment or two and then walked away. He couldn't speak the truth and he knew the boy's mother couldn't bear to hear it.

Tyler, age three, had died of smoke inhalation.

John Cassell, the house quest of the evening, was most likely a young soldier from the base.  He went on with his life, probably always remembering the fire, but never again having to deal with any of the consequences.  Joshua suffered burns over most of his body but none of those were life threatening.  His mother, Tammy James stayed with him in the hospital until he was released.   Maybe she didn’t know, but she was pregnant with her second child.

Toni Harris was left alone to deal with the aftermath of the fire.  She had lost her home and her son.  She would have a lifetime to deal with the pain from those loses.

I first read of the story in the Raleigh News and Observer while attending a funeral in the area.  Somehow, I just didn’t buy into the official conclusion that the fire was accidental and so began my three year quest to discover the truth behind why Tyler died that December morning.   I was led down paths I wasn’t
sure I could travel: broken families, destroyed lives, abandoned children,   illegal drugs, shoplifting rings, and street prostitution.

Toni Harris sued the owners of the Mark I apartments, as much out of angry and frustration as any other motive but she had to drop the suit before it could go to trial.  The experience changed her life forever, probably for the better but the pain is still there and probably always will be.

Tammy James lost her children too, but not to any tragedy except that of her own lifestyle choices.  If her boyfriend at the time knew she was pregnant with his child, he didn’t care.  Instead of seeing to the needs of Tammy and her son, he was racing around the streets of Wake County drinking and peddling drugs.  It wasn’t the first time he had done this nor would it be the last.

They were both still young.  I don’t know if anyone or anything could have made a difference in their lives at this point.  I do know that our penal system didn’t.  Mental health professionals say that a person has to hit bottom before they will recognize the need and develop the desire to change.  Being cast out by ones family, losing one’s children after suffering the lose of a loved one in a fire, and having your lover turn his back on you and your unborn child wasn’t bottom for Tammy J. James.

It could very well be that Tammy’s fall from grace was into a bottomless pit.  Tragedy only seems to strengthen her resolve to remain independent.  To her, to love or to be loved, is to allow another some form or degree of control over her life.  But, it is the very situations that Tammy has placed herself into that controls her very life.

She, herself, acknowledged “I can see where the decisions I made laid the traps that I find myself unable to escape from now.”  Tammy knows that the harder she tries to retain total control over her life, the less control she really has.  The less control she has, the more she struggles to gain that control.

Jesus said “Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it, but whosoever should lose his life, the same shall save it.”     I know the quote probable wasn’t intended to fit situations such as Tammy has found herself in, but the principle is the same.  If she is to live, she must first be willing to yield and give others control.  Only by doing so, shall she ever hope to regain control over her life.

Toni and Tammy were the same age and from the same family.  Why did one turn her life around and the other continue down her destructive path?  Why did she choose this path to begin with?  What can we do to prevent others from making the same choices?

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