Fire in the Baby’s Room: How Early Detection Helped Save This Family When the Grandchildren Came to Visit
“We could have slept through it. The smoke could have killed us.”—Lynn Smith
March 5, 2016. Lynn Smith was a teaching assistant, flight attendant and, for ten years, assistant to the federal security director of the Transportation Security Administration. But her favorite job? Grandmother to five energetic girls, ranging from 7 years old to 13 months. “This is my favorite time of life,” says Lynn, who lives in a town called Owasco in New York’s Finger Lakes region. “There is so much joy.” On a recent Saturday, Lynn’s daughter Kelly came up for the weekend from New York City with her girls, Olivia, 4, and baby Mila, 10 months. Lynn’s son, Stephen, who lives nearby, came by with his three girls. The family had a pizza party and the kids ran around and played. It was freezing outside — about 20 degrees — so Lynn turned on the portable radiator to warm up the back bedroom where Mila would sleep in a folding crib. After bedtime stories, Olivia climbed into “Grandma Lynn’s” bed while Kelly carried Mila into the back bedroom. “I kissed her goodnight,” Lynn recalls. “She was in her terrycloth onesie, a little angel.”
It had been a full day and Lynn was blissfully worn out. So she forgot one small thing. “On a normal night, I would have turned off the heater before we all went to bed. But it was one of those nights. We were just exhausted.” Below are the accounts of Lynn, Kelly, ADT Dispatcher Amanda Willoughby, Owasco Fire Department Chief Chris Morabito and comments from State Farm public affairs specialist Heather Paul.
Lynn: It was around 5:30 a.m. and I was half awake. All of a sudden, I heard the hallway smoke detector beeping. I thought the battery must be low. But at the same time the ADT smoke alarm was going off and it got louder and louder. I jumped out of bed and ran to the room with the furnace. I couldn’t see anything [wrong] but I had started to smell smoke and a chemical smell.
Kelly: The baby had woken up around 2 a.m. so I had brought her into bed with me. I heard the smoke detector going off but I didn’t think too much of it. I figured it was dust or debris in the system. Then my mom came bursting into the bedroom. I smelled what I knew was electrical smoke. I ran into the room that Mila had been sleeping in [for the first part of the night]. I saw that the the portable radiator was on fire. The flames were maybe a foot tall.
‘The Heater’s on Fire!’
Lynn: Kelly said “Mom, the heater’s on fire!” Kelly had Mila in her arms and I ran in and got [Olivia]. I told her we had a fire and we had to get out of the house quickly. She was very brave, she didn’t cry. I just grabbed her hand. I don’t think it was even two minutes but I remember when I went out the door my eyes were stinging from the smoke. It was that fast.
Kelly called 911. I had grabbed my phone on the way out and the [dispatcher] from ADT called me. She told me the fire department was on its way and asked if we were all safely out of the house. Then I saw fire trucks and ambulances.
ADT Dispatcher Amanda Willoughby, 28, had started her 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift at ADT’s Knoxville, TN monitoring center.
Amanda: It was a fire alarm in New York, where we are required to call the fire department first. Once I called fire dispatch, I called Ms. Smith. I said, “This is Amanda with ADT security. Is everything okay there?” She said the heater was smoking. I asked her if everybody was out of the house. She told me she had two granddaughters, a four-year-old and an infant, and that they had gotten the kids out. She was a little panicked. I told her we were so glad she was out of the house and we had the fire department on their way.
Kelly: I ran back into the house and unplugged the heater. It was still on fire. I tried to smother it with a blanket and then that caught on fire. I ran into the bathroom with the blanket and threw it in the shower and turned the shower on. Then I filled some cups with water from the bathroom and threw it on the radiator and that put the fire out. Then I picked up the radiator and threw it off the front porch into the yard.
Kelly was lucky. Fire safety experts say you should never run back into a house on fire. “I don’t recommend that for anybody,” says Owasco Fire Department Chief Chris Morabito. “Once you get out of the house, stay out of the house in a safe spot. Don’t go back in. You don’t know what’s in there.”
A Tragedy Avoided
Chief Morabito: When we arrived, we found heavy smoke in the house but no fire. We checked the family and they were good — no blood pressure problems, no smoke inhalation. The best thing they did was have an early detection system. It worked for them 100 percent. If they didn’t have that, I honestly believe you could have had a tragedy. Most deaths from fire are from smoke inhalation. At that early morning hour, the fire could have burned long before anybody realized it.
Lynn said the house sustained about $4,000 worth of damage, which was covered by her State Farm homeowners’ insurance policy.
Heather Paul, State Farm public affairs specialist: We do see a significant number of home fires that are started by alternative heating sources. People often make the mistake of keeping a heater going while they are sleeping. Just like we urge people not to leave candles burning, it’s the same with alternative heating sources. It’s easy for them to short-circuit, and have a draft blow a curtain or a blanket over it, which could start a fire. And a house can be fully engulfed in flames within five minutes.
Lynn: The fire chief told us the heater probably had a faulty switch. Afterward, it was so surreal. I was traumatized for a couple of weeks. But the first time I went back to babysit for the girls, it hit me: A terrible thing had happened but everything went right and we survived. We could have slept through it. The smoke could have killed us. A few weeks after my fire, there was another fire an hour and a half away; there was a little girl and they couldn’t get her out. I was just heartbroken.
The firefighters, they are heroes. Amanda is a sweetheart, very kind and really loves her job helping people. When I met her [at the LifeSaver award ceremony in April], I said, “thank you, thank you, thank you, for helping us.”
Amanda: We had a big hug. When you get to meet someone and they are okay because you did what you were supposed to do, that is a great feeling. It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling and makes your heart beat faster. I told her “We were glad we could be there when you needed us.”
A Story for Someday
Lynn: I have always appreciated my life, my family, my grandchildren. But we had a fire in the middle of the night and we made it out. We are a very fortunate family. And I am even more thankful for the little things. I’m reaching out to old friends and I am talking to Kelly about a trip to Egypt. I always wanted to do it and now I think we really will.
The fire made quite an impression on Olivia, who told her teachers at school about the excitement at her grandmother’s house. Mila, of course, is too young to understand. Someday, Lynn says, she may tell her.
Lynn: I would probably say, one cold night we had a fire in the house and a miracle happened — we all got out and survived.
Safety Tips for Portable Heaters:
With the unseasonably chilly weather in some parts of the country, many people use space heaters, portable radiators or other alternative heating devices to warm up the house. But use caution. Some tips from State Farm:
Never leave the heater on overnight, while you are sleeping or when you leave the house.
Set an alarm on your smart phone, a simple alarm clock or even an egg timer. But have a system to remind yourself to turn the heater off.
Always unplug the heater when you turn it off. A power surge can cause a fire.
Never burn paper, cardboard or other improper fuel in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. Paper and cardboard can release small particles that can fly into the air, land on furniture or a carpet and set it on fire.
Keep all flammable materials, such as toys, furniture, curtains or blankets far from the portable heater. Place the portable heater on a bare floor, not a rug or carpet.
Make sure your heater is working properly. And remember, these devices don’t last forever. Replace them in a timely fashion.
For more information, go to learningcenter.statefarm.com.