Friday, June 8, 2007

Riverdale, GA Fire Kills 5 (Clayton County)

Yesterday, Thursday June 7th, five people lost their lives in a tragic fire in Riverdale, Georgia. We missed the first press conference but were there for the second. At that point we knew that at least five had died and that there might possibly be others who had been trapped in the Budget Inn.

I couldn’t help but think about the tragedy, the lives lost, the sadness that was already there for the families of those lost. Later as we found out more about what happened in the hotel room where that family died, it became even more horrific.

The fire started early in the morning and, from all reports, spread quickly. It was an older hotel, built before current sprinkler ordinances were in place, composed of wood and stucco. According to articles I’ve read in other publications it seems that people would cover the smoke alarms so they could smoke in their rooms. Some cooked in their rooms. Many lived in the hotel for extended periods of time. In fact, the family that died had been living in the hotel for about six months.

Skakita Jones, 32, her three children, daughter Shavon Butler, 14, son Devon Butler, 11, and daughter Desha Butler, 10, lived in the hotel with fiancĂ© Freddie Lee Colston, Jr., 26. Shakita and Freddie Lee were to be married shortly. He was planning to be fitted for his tuxedo the day he died. Shakita’s uncle, Melvin Jones, 43, was staying with the family in order to help them move into their new home in Riverdale. They were moving out Thursday. Instead all but Shavon lost their lives in the fire.

Shavon was rescued by Riverdale and Clayton County Fire Fighters and flown to Grady Hospital with 2nd and 3rd degree burns on approximately 18% of her body.

As I edited our film and read other stories to check facts, my imagination took me into that small bathroom with Shakita, Freddie Lee, Melvin and the children. They retreated to the bathroom, unable to get out. They knew to put a towel across the bottom of the door to keep out smoke. Shakita used her cell phone to call for help. Unfortunately, the fire had spread across the roof and ultimately the roof collapsed.

Fire fighters were only able to rescue Shavon.

The family probably went to bed the night before the fire looking forward to what the future held. They had a new home they were moving into on Thursday. They had a wedding to plan. The children were probably excited about moving and being a complete family. They may have been thinking about their friends, what they planned to do for the weekend or the rest of the summer.

Thursday morning they lost their future.

I don’t know how long they huddled in the tub before they were overcome. I can’t begin to imagine what the mother of two suffered knowing she couldn’t save her young children. Her uncle loved and cared enough about her to travel to be with her and help her embark on a better future. Freddie Lee had embraced the entire family as his own yet he was helpless to save them. Did they hold out hope right to the last minute, knowing the fire was racing toward them? Did the cell phone connection allow them to share last minute endearments with family? What would these young children have done had they lived?

How did it happen that the fire was able to take hold and trap the family at a time when they were possibly already up and getting ready for their day? Why didn’t they hear smoke alarms going off, if they did? How did the fire start? If an ordinance were in place requiring that older hotels and multi-family dwellings upgrade their sprinkler system would these five still be alive?

There are a lot of questions to be answered and in the days to come we’ll probably get the answers to some. Unfortunately, by the time many of the answers are disclosed the media will have moved on to another story. The lessons that could be learned from the tragedy may never bear fruit simply because this fire might be an old memory by the time all the investigations are completed.

We talked with Fire Chief Alex Cohilas, Clayton County Fire Department, after the official press conference. It’s obvious from his comments that he is passionate about fire prevention, increased standards and he cares deeply about stopping the unnecessary loss of life. Although the press may move on to another story, it seems Cohilas will not move on until he wins the battle to enact the strongest possible building codes with proper enforcement in place.

My prayers go out to the families of those who lost their lives and in support of Shavon, who still has many battles of her own to overcome.

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