by: James Jarvis, American Red Cross
Andre Smith, or ‘Dre as his friends called him, loved video games, playing basketball, and watching professional wrestling. At ten years old, he was a full-loving child who always had a smile on his face and enjoyed goofing off with his cousins, said Sabrina Sheridan, ‘Dre’s aunt. “He said that he wanted to be a policeman someday so that he could help people,” Sheridan said. ‘Dre’s sister, Tashiya, had dreams of her own.
Tashiya was younger than ‘Dre, only nine years old, but she was certainly no smaller personality. “She lit up the room, “ Sheridan said. “She was always singing, dancing, laughing, or playing. She loved to ‘dress up’ and hoped to become a teacher someday.”
Two beautiful children, full of life and brimming with potential, will unfortunately never achieve their dreams, as they lost their lives along with four others in a tragic mobile home fire in Garland, NC on August 30, 2014. Six lives lost and three families left to grieve over what could have been.
Sabrina Sheridan remembers her sister as a hard-working mother. When Anita Robinson, 33, was not playing games with her children, ‘Dre and Tashiya, or helping them with their homework, she was hard at work to try to provide them with a better life. “She had a personality that everyone loved. Her family was her life and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her,” Sheridan said.
‘Dre and Tashiya were not Anita’s only loves. For the past seven years, Johnnie Newkirk, 35, better known as Kent, was Anita’s man. Kent loved working with his hands, said his aunt, Ms. Lizzie Murphy. “He was always working on car stereos, electronics, anything he could get his hands on. If you needed it fixed, he could do it!”
Kent was a family man, Murphy explained. “He tried to see his son [age 7] as often as he could and he loved Anita’s children as if they were his own.” He remained close to his mother, Laura Ann Newkirk, 63, until his final day.
“Laura Ann was a very quiet person,” said Murphy of her youngest sister. “She read her bible, looked out for everyone, and was really involved with ‘Dre and Tashiya. She cared for them when Anita had to work late and helped them with their homework and basically kept them on track,” Murphy said. When Murphy retired, she reconnected with Laura Ann and the two spoke by telephone sometimes three times a day. “We were very close growing up and it was great to become so close to her again,” she said.
“Everyone loved Possum,” said James Wilson’s mother, Queen Esther Wilson of Clinton, NC. James Wilson, known simply as Possum from the time he was a baby, was the eldest son from among 15 children. Possum was a rugged man – a product of 30 years of hard work as a farmer in nearby Clinton, NC. For nearly 25 years, Possum was Laura Ann’s companion and never far from her side. Queen Esther remembers her son as a God-fearing man who had a heart of gold.
Six lives, three generations – gone. Shortly after 12:30 a.m., in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 2014, Laura Ann’s mobile home caught fire. “My grandson (Solomon) was the first person to arrive on the scene,” said Joyce Miles, a neighbor and Laura Ann Newkirk’s cousin. “He ran as fast as he could and tried to kick in the door, but the fire threw him backwards. There was nothing anyone could do. In a little less than seven minutes, the whole structure was gone!”
By all accounts, this tragedy could have been prevented if Laura Ann’s mobile home had been protected by smoke alarms. Fire investigators determined that there were no working smoke alarms in Laura Ann’s home.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, three out of every five home fire deaths result from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. To help ensure that no other family endures the pain and intense grief that these families endured, the Office of the State Fire Marshal, numerous fire departments of Sampson County, the American Red Cross, and several other local, state, and national organizations partnered October 4th to install nearly 800 10-year smoke alarms in at-risk communities across the county.
Hundreds of volunteers canvassed dozens of neighborhoods across the county to teach people about fire safety, and properly install working fire alarms in their homes. “Fire is everyone’s fight,” said Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Wayne Goodwin. “By working together, by pooling our resources, and by reaching out to the most at-risk communities, we can prevent future tragedies.”
Through their grief, the families of the people lost that fateful night are grateful to see something positive come from their tragedy. “What they are doing now is just a Godsend and a blessing,” said Murphy. “It’s as if our family has been through a horrible storm and then when it seems darkest, the skies turn blue and all that’s left are little pieces. God will help us put the pieces back together and see us through. Hopefully this program will help ensure that no one else loses their lives unnecessarily.”
“We’re all grieving. We’re all hurting,” said Miles. “The trailer is a constant reminder for me (as it rests across the street from her home). Not an hour goes by that I don’t think of them. I remember Tashiya being so happy the day before… she was singing and laughing and it’s hard to comprehend not hearing that laughter again or seeing them run into the house from the school bus. It’s so sad to see so many generations lost in one tragedy. It’s truly amazing how many people and resources have flowed into our community following this tragedy. Hopefully their efforts will help ensure that no one else will have to experience this.”