'If It Hadn’t Been for the Smoke Detector, I’d Have Lost My Daughter'

Four months ago, a tea light tipped over in Rosie Saunder’s house and caused a fire that left her family displaced. Rosie shares her story with Parents in honor of National Home Fire Drill Day on Saturday, October 15.
Courtesy of Rosie Saunders

It was a typical July afternoon for stay-at-home-mom Rosie Saunders, who was chatting with a friend and her children’s father on the ground floor of her Columbus, Ohio home. Her 10-year-old son, Jonathan, was taking a nap in his room; daughter Cheyenne, 15, was upstairs watching Netflix. Rosie’s daughter-in-law was in the house too. After using a metal oil burner to enjoy an aromatherapy candle in an upstairs bedroom, she blew it out and came downstairs.

Minutes later, the downstairs smoke alarm sounded.

The children’s father went into the kitchen to investigate whether something on the stove was burning. “Once I heard him say, ‘There’s nothing going on in here,’ I jumped off the couch. I knew something was wrong,’” recalls Rosie. “Then we heard the smoke alarm upstairs go off too.” The father ran upstairs and immediately screamed down to Rosie: Call 911. There are flames everywhere!

Said Rosie, “All I could think was, Cheyenne is upstairs!”

Cheyenne’s father suffered burns on his legs while retrieving his daughter from her smoke-filled bedroom, located just steps from the fire. (According to firefighters, the tea light had apparently reignited and tipped over onto a pile of clothes, causing an inferno that destroyed the entire second floor in less than 10 minutes.)

“If it hadn’t been for that smoke alarm, we’d have lost my daughter,” says Rosie.

It’s a tragic hypothetical that is anything but far-fetched. Two weeks earlier, Rosie’s home had been devoid of functional smoke alarms. But 11 days before the fire, in a stroke of sheer luck, workers from the American Red Cross (ARC) stopped by unannounced and fixed the old arms (and installed additional new ones) free-of-charge.

Rosie’s home is one of 100,000 houses in disadvantaged communities across the country that has or will soon benefit from this canvassing program, a joint initiative by the American Red Cross and Nationwide. Three out of every five home fire death occur in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.

Rosie—who is still displaced from her home, and currently lives in a hotel room with her children—has a critical message for fellow parents: “No matter what you do, you cannot prevent all fires. The cause could be electrical or accidental. It could be a kid playing with matches or a lighter. So make sure you have smoke detectors in your home, and a plan in place to get out.”

Rosie’s family had never practiced a fire drill, and that caused stress as they fled the fire. Instead of going to the family’s pre-established meeting spot—a tree down the block—her son Jonathan ran into a neighbor’s home. “I started hollering, where did Jonathan go?” said Rosie, “I was panicked.” Fortunately, a neighbor quickly informed Rosie of her son’s whereabouts.

Any day is a good day to practice your family’s fire escape plan, but Saturday, October 15—the first ever Home Fire Drill Day—is an especially smart choice. Go to homefiredrillday.com to learn exactly how to complete a fire drill, and to check out fire drill games and other crucial fire safety resources (including a free app). You can also pledge to participate in a home fire drill twice a year with the hashtag #HomeFireDrillDay. (Home Fire Drill Day is a joint initiative by Nationwide's Make Safe Happen program and a number of non-profit partners, including the American Red Cross, Safe Kids Worldwide, the International Association of Fire FightersNational Fire Protection Association and Nationwide Children's Hospital.)

“I never thought about fire before this happened, but now that I’ve been through what I have, I think about it a lot,” says Rosie. “Always remember that your material possessions can be replaced, but you and your children cannot. During the fire, as I stood outside staring at smoke coming from Cheyenne’s bedroom window, all I could think was, I’ve lost so much, but my daughter, she’s still standing here next to me.”

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