In the wake of tragedy, there is always a lesson to be learned. One person’s loss can be the next person’s lesson and overcoming grief can be made an easier road to travel when your story can save another from despair.
Former Stephenville residents Dennis and Peggy Cunningham suffered a terrible loss Friday, March 7, when a fire overtook their home and the lives of three of their children. The fire broke out just before 6 a.m. at their Bassett home.
Laura Wilkinson, 17; Tyler Joe Robert, 11; and Rowdy Cunningham, 5, perished in the fire.
The nearly debilitating blow was weakened by the fact that Peggy and her two daughters, Faith, 12, and Emily, 8, escaped the inferno that ravaged the home while Dennis was away at work.
Strong in her faith, Peggy said that the grace of God allowed herself and her two younger daughters to carry on.
“God had a plan for Laura, Tyler and Rowdy,” Cunningham said. “In losing them, there is something to be learned, something to be taught. God also has a plan for Dennis, Emily, Faith and myself. From here we must go on and put our faith in Him. There is a lesson to be learned and perhaps our tragedy is the teacher.”
Peggy said just days before the fatal fire, Emily had participated in a fire safety course at school and the life saving techniques demonstrated by firefighters allowed her child to escape the blaze.
“She knew to drop down and go,” Peggy said. “She knew to stay below the smoke and get out of the house as quickly as possible.”
Now, weeks later, Peggy is working to move forward. She is reaching out and sharing her story, hoping that a simple message might save the next family.
The message is simple: have a plan, practice your escape, inform your children and do everything you can to get out alive.
Stephenville Fire Marshal Gary Nabors said there a number of basic steps and precautions that can be taken to increase your family’s chance for escape.
“The most important thing is to make sure you have an adequate number of working fire alarms throughout your home,” Nabors said. “When constructing new homes, building code requires that an alarm is installed in each of your home’s bedrooms and in the common areas outside of the bedrooms. This is the best rule to follow. It will allow protection from a fire on either side of the door.”
Nabors explained that the layout of your home will dictate how many alarms are needed.
“If you have bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, you will need alarms outside of each room,” Nabors said. “If you have a hall where the rooms are next to each other, one alarm in the hall may be sufficient.”
Choosing the right fire alarm is also important.
“There are two types of alarms available for your home,” Nabors explained. “There are the ionization type alarms and the photoelectric type and both work in very different ways.”
Ionization fire alarms respond faster to open, flaming fires with little smoke, while photoelectric alarms react more quickly to small, smoldering fires with heavy smoke, he said.
Tests have shown that the difference in the two types of alarms is significant. Which type of alarm should you install? Nabors said the best option can be found in new dual sensor detectors that implement both ionization and photoelectric systems. He said that the dual sensor detectors can be harder to find and urged everyone to request that local retailers stock the alarms. Online shopping also offers a selection sometimes not readily available at local stores.
For families with small children, there are also alarms available that allow parents to record their voices telling those who might not respond as quickly to standard alarms to get out of the home.
Some alarms may also be connected to work in conjunction with each other. If an alarm is sounded at the south end of the house, all alarms will be sounded allowing everyone at every location to escape at first detection.
Having alarms installed is important but routine testing and maintenance must be performed to ensure that the alarms are working properly.
“Every alarm should be tested each month,” Nabors said. “You must also replace the batteries once each year. A good practice is to replace the batteries each fall when you change your clocks. Replace the battery even if the batteries in the alarms are still working.”
Once you have fire alarms in place, the second step in establishing your fire safety plan is to establish an escape route.
In developing the plan, you must allow for two escape routes. There should be two ways out of every bedroom such as the door and a window.
“The route should be simple and familiar,” Nabors said. “Make sure that every window in your home can be easily opened. If they are painted shut, remove the paint. If the lock is hard to open, replace it.”
If you have alarms inside and outside of each bedroom, it is best to sleep with the door closed. If you do sleep with the door closed, make sure you have an alarm in the room with you, he said.
If a fire erupts, escaping with your life should be your only concern.
“Leave all of your possessions behind,” Nabors said. “Those are only material things and they can be replaced.”
Your route should lead you out of your home and to a common meeting spot.
“You must designate a meeting area,” Nabors said. “Choose a place that everyone can easily reach.”
It is also important that every family have a person in charge.
“That person would be responsible for taking a head count and knowing if anyone has been left behind,” Nabors said. “You should also designate someone responsible for children, the elderly and the disabled.”
Once a meeting place has been set; your next step is to decide where you will go to dial 911.
“Never call from inside the home,” Nabors said. “You may choose a neighbor’s house, your car or if you thought to grab you cell phone, you may use it. But never call from your home.”
The last and perhaps the most important step in the plan is practice.
“As with anything, we do best what we practice over and over again,” Nabors said. “In rehearsing your plan, it is better to show than tell. Plan fire drills and practice.”
The best way to perform you fire drill is to sound the alarms.
“Most people die from smoke inhalation during fires that occur when they are sleeping,” Nabors said. “When you are practicing your plan, it is best to stage a fire drill in the early morning hours just before everyone awakes.”
“Treat the drill like a real fire,” Nabors added. “Make sure that everyone gets up and out of bed even if you have to carry your children out of the house. Do not end the drill until everyone is out and at the designated meeting place.”
In an emergency, with flames raging and smoke filling the rooms, children have a tendency to seek the shelter of a familiar place. Smaller children tend to hide under beds, in closets and even in toy boxes.
“In talking with your children, make sure they know, in the case they cannot escape, they must be easy to find,” Nabors said. “Let your children know that hiding will get them killed.”
Fire Chief Jimmy Chew said there a number of things that people can do to make their escape or rescue easier.
“When leaving a smoke filled home, get low and stay out of the heat,” Chew said. “Smoke inhalation is the number one killer of fire victims. Smoke rises, so stay low.”
Remember, once you are out, get to your meeting place and take a head count.
“When firefighters arrive, tell them if anyone is still in the house,” Chew said. “Let us know where they might be found”
When entering a fire, firefighters follow routine procedures; being aware of some of those practices can help save your life.
“When we enter a home filled with smoke, it is very hard to see,” Chew explained. “We are trained to feel along walls, using our arms to feel our way around a room. If you can’t get out, try to stay near a wall and stay low.
“Check your alarms, establish an escape plan and run fire drills. Having a plan can save your life and the lives of your children.”