“I don’t remember much from the full moon night of Friday the 13th in March 1998. My sister and I went to our father’s house for the weekend; it was spring break at school. I was 9 years old. Monica, my older sister was 10. Her birthday was the next day, March 14th.
Monica remembers more than I do. I’m partially grateful for that. Here is her recollection of the night that forever changed our lives:
‘I remember everything from that night, it was a real-life nightmare. I remember my lime green painted nails. I remember Daddy was in the market for a new car, he asked me what color he should get. I said purple! Weeks after the fire, I was released from the hospital. He picked me up in a purple car. It was so special to me. I’m a huge Daddy’s girl. My younger sister Vanessa and I always wanted to fall asleep watching cartoons. I remember arguing with her about which cartoon we were going to watch. She then got out of bed and moved to the other room closest to the stairs. We fell asleep.
The next thing I remember is waking up panicking, screaming and crying. I was able to hear someone – unsure if it was our father, or first responders Matt Newton or Darrin Niemeier, but one of them saying, ‘I’M COMING!’ I heard tumbling, as if someone kept falling down the stairs. You couldn’t see anything that was in front of you – it was the darkest pitch black you could ever imagine. I screamed these words as loud as I could, ‘VANESSA, IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, ON THE COUNT OF 3, HOLD YOUR BREATHE….1….2…3…’ I never once heard Vanessa. I then took the deepest breath of air I could and didn’t let go. I was just standing in one spot after fighting for so long thinking, wondering, questioning and hoping someone would come quickly. The next thing I remember is hearing, ‘MOVE AWAY FROM THE DOOR.’ I then saw a very dim light and heard firefighter Darrin say, ‘If you can see me, come towards me and the light.’ I then passed out and woke up in the ambulance with Matt, the paramedic. I saw the burn on my lower right arm, he then removed my lime green fingernail polish. I questioned him asking where Vanessa was, where my dad was. I remember kicking the back window in the ambulance.
I woke up in the hospital days later. I remember my nose bleeding and the painful baths. I was always wondering about my sister Vanessa. Nobody would tell me where she was, ‘is she okay?’ Pastor Troy, a youth pastor at the Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas, visited with me every day. He would sit by my bed and just talk and pray to keep me company. I would question him about Vanessa. He came up with the idea of getting a rubber band and writing ‘Vanessa’ all around it and placed it on my wrist. He told me to look at it whenever I thought of her. Before I left the hospital the rubber band broke. Still at this point, I didn’t know anything about Vanessa or her condition. I remember just crying – I wanted my sister so badly.
When I was released from the hospital I stayed home. I wasn’t ready to go back to school. I didn’t get to see Vanessa until she was out of her medically induced coma. The first time I saw her, she was wrapped in white bandages from head to toe. The first time I was able to see my dad’s house was months later. The windows were covered in plastic and it was still hot inside.
‘Do you want to see the upstairs?,’ my dad asked.
I agreed to go. We got to the top of the stairs; I couldn’t breathe, I ran outside as fast as I could to get fresh air. To this day Vanessa, and I don’t like to go up there. They decorated our rooms in clouds and angels to watch over us. It was cute, but we never slept in that room again. When I talk about that night, I get shaky and can’t control my PTSD.’
I’m heavy with emotions reading that account from my older sister, learning how worried she was about me.
We were both in critical condition. Monica suffered smoke inhalation, burns to her hands, right arm and cheeks. I also suffered smoke inhalation and have burns on 50-60% of my body. A few toes had to be amputated on my right foot. I also don’t remember much from the hospital stay as I was heavily medicated and in a coma for weeks. When I woke up, my family was there.
‘Monica, why are you wearing blush?,’ I asked her, because her cheeks were very pink from her burns. I was so confused.
The recovery from the devastating fire was rough, the baths were so painful. I remember hallucinating all the time. I went through excruciating physical therapy. My skin was very tight and healing so if I stayed in one spot for too long my body would be stuck that way until I was able to stretch it out using braces. I had to relearn most things including eating, rolling over, walking and riding a bike, even looking in the mirror again. I eventually made it and I’m strong as ever now. I was home schooled for a while but eventually went back to school. School was rough at first, but I made friends easily, and having my sister close in age with me so we could see each other whenever we wanted was extremely helpful.
Brave firefighter Darrin Niemeier at the young age of 23 rescued us. One by one, he scooped my sister and I up under his arm and crawled out of our burning house. All the equipment a firefighter must wear to keep safe adds 60+ pounds. We owe our lives to him.
Darrin recalled what he could remember from that night:
‘I crawled on the floor, crawling against the wall. I was heading to the room with the flames until I heard a muffled scream from the girls to my right. I told the girls to come towards the light.’
Monica reached Darrin and immediately passed out in his arms. He took her to Matt, Monica’s paramedic, who was waiting at the top of the stairs where the smoke started but still had clean air to breathe. Darrin immediately went back to get me. He couldn’t see but he felt with his hands. He found me under the bed with my hands on a pillow covering my face. He put me under his arm and crawled out. He took me to my paramedic, Trevor. Just then, the other firefighters arrived. This was Darrin’s first rescue; he took a much-deserved rest after ensuring we were safe.
Darrin contacted us on the 17-year anniversary of the fire. We were in total shock, we always wanted to reunite, we just didn’t know how.
This is the email I received from him. At first, I thought it was a scam. I posted it on social media, and it got a lot of attention, so I said, ‘why not?’ I’m so glad I answered this email!
We went to his fire station and talked for hours. He took us up the 98-foot firetruck ladder to see the city skyline – it was so beautiful.
We talked about our stories, where we were in life. We had our unanswered questions answered.
‘I just sat on the outside steps in shock. It was 1 of the 3 hottest fires I’ve ever experienced. I still have that same flashlight; I will never forget that night,’ he told us.
I think it’s wild he remembers every detail from that night. From my dad and stepmom being in total shock, holding back our dog by the collar. Bumping into a chair while crawling on the floor. To what we were wearing, what we looked like and where he found us.
‘I can still replay your screams in my head, and the sounds of the crackling wood and rushing flames,’ he said.
He told us the smoke was so thick it sounded like foggy ghost sounds – Creepy.
After talking with Darrin, we really wanted to meet our paramedics. Darrin remembered Matt and he was easy to track down. Then Matt helped get in contact with Trevor and it was one big reunion. We met up and had lunch with Matt and Trevor and talked for hours. We again had all our unanswered questions answered. Is this real? We finally got to meet our heroes from that night. We are so extremely thankful for all of you.
Matt Newton said he was working on the ambulance just a few blocks from headquarters near the end of his shift when he got the call for a house fire:
‘The driver and I were both firefighters for different departments working part time on the ambulance. We were excited to see if it was an actual fire since we were so close to the address. That excitement changed when we heard on the radio there were two kids still inside. When we turned on the street there was heavy smoke rolling across the block. As we pulled up to the house, I saw two adults standing in the front yard. I jumped out of the ambulance and ran for the front door. As I ran up the stairs the smoke at the top of the stairs was banked down to the floor. I could hear the girls crying and coughing. I started to crawl down the hallway, but the smoke was too thick, and the heat was increasing to the point of pain on my forehead as I moved closer. I thought by their muffled voices that the room they were in had the door closed so they were at least a little sheltered from the heat I was experiencing.
I retreated to the top of the stairs for a breath of clean air. I could hear the fire truck siren now and knew it was close. I called out to the kids and told them to keep talking and not to open the door. When the firefighter came in, I knew him by name and told him to hurry down the hall to get them. I stayed at the top of the stairs. The first girl he brought back was Monica. She was unconscious but breathing. As I carried Monica down the stairs, I called Dispatch and told them I was on the call of the fire and asked for another ambulance. My partner opened the doors and I laid her on the cot. We put oxygen on her with a mask. She regained consciousness very quickly. She had a dirty face from the smoke but responded appropriately to questions in only a matter of a few minutes.
I turned to look for the second girl. The chief was on the scene by this time along with more fire trucks. He told me she wasn’t out yet. By now fire was venting out of the upstairs window and I didn’t think she would make it out alive. As I turned around and climbed up into the back of my ambulance, they came running out of the house with Vanessa. When I turned around, they threw her into my arms. She was not conscious, not obviously breathing, and was very hot on my arms. She had a black face and I remember her clothes seemed to be smoking. It looked like she had burns everywhere. Fortunately, the second ambulance had heard the radio traffic and gotten there quickly. As I was holding Vanessa, they ran up to me and said give her to me. I laid her in his arms, and they ran off to the other ambulance to treat her. I didn’t see Vanessa again that night. I turned back to treating Monica which consisted mainly of continuing oxygen, and emotional comfort as much as possible. We left to go to Children’s Mercy ER. She had burns on her hands and face, there were some blisters, but I don’t remember much else. Her clothes weren’t burned, but dirty from smoke.
When we got to the ER, I remember the bright lights of the hospital showed the burns were a little worse than they looked in the ambulance. There were lots of questions from the ED staff about how long she was in the smoke, and heat. Was she in the fire room itself, for how long? I remember them looking at me funny. At first, I thought I hadn’t done something right for treatment, but I realized when I went to the bathroom to wash my hands that my face was black from smoke too. I went with the Firefighters one time to visit the girls in the hospital weeks later. I remember Monica was walking around the room. She had both hands bandaged. We must have visited Vanessa’s room because she was in bed, intubated and seemed like she was wrapped head to toe from burns. That was the last time I saw the girls until they reached out to me a few years ago.’
Trevor Zaharsky was working at American Medical Response, (AMR) in Independence, Missouri, as a paramedic:
‘I was dispatch to a reported residential structure fire with children trapped inside. Upon arrival to the area, I was met in front by an Independence Firefighter caring a small, blonde female child wearing blue jeans and a blue jean jacket. The Firefighter handed me the unresponsive female named Vanessa which appeared to be lifeless at the time she was placed in my arms. I returned to the ambulance where I verified a pulse and shallow agonal breathing. I instructed my partner to begin ventilating Vanessa as I began to remove the clothing to see the total area of burns to her body. At that time, I did not view any visible burns, just observed the skin to be hot to the touch and red in color. During transport, I placed cool compresses to the skin to aid in cooling the body.
I observed Vanessa’s upper and lower extremities, facial and torso regions to have doubled in size due to the edema caused by the heat of the fire. Upon arrival to the Emergency Room, the Emergency Room staff began treatment of Vanessa and immediately contacted Children’s Mercy to make arraignments to transport Vanessa to the Burn Unit. I was assigned to transport Vanessa from Independence Regional ER to Children’s Mercy’s Burn Unit. Upon contact with Vanessa in the Emergency Room, the edema had doubled from the time I had left her initially at the Emergency Room. Vanessa was transported to Children’s Mercy’s Burn unit where she was left with the medical staff. I followed up on Vanessa a few weeks later where she was in a medically induced coma with an unknown future outcome. 17 years later, I was contacted by a family member via social media reaching out on the behalf of Vanessa. I was fortunate to reunite with her and to see the beautiful little girl I once thought didn’t make it to have had a full recovery.’
My sister Monica now has a 5-year-old daughter who just started Kindergarten this Fall. She lives with her daughter and her boyfriend Nate Yanez in a gorgeous house in Liberty, Missouri, with their 2 dogs and 2 cats, a street full of children Marley’s age to play and go to school with. Nate and Monica have known each other for 10 years and have been dating for a year and a half.
I met Eric, my husband, when I was 15. He was 16. He proposed after 7 years of dating and we married 3 years later. We’ve been together for 13 years total and married for 4 years. It was always my dream to become a mother. We never expected to have infertility issues. It took us 3 ½ years to conceive our first pregnancy, with help of fertility treatments. Unfortunately, we had a miscarriage very early on. About a year later, we were pregnant with our second pregnancy after more extreme treatments for fertility.
We are now 20 weeks pregnant, and we just recently found out – it’s a BOY. From the moment I learned baby was a boy, I knew what we would name him: Darrin, in honor of the man who saved my life.
I texted firefighter Darrin to let him know he’ll soon have a namesake.
‘I wanted to tell you, we will be naming him after you,’ I wrote to him. ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for saving Monica and I so many years ago. If it weren’t for you and your team, I wouldn’t be here.’
He replied, ‘Really?! That would be amazing! I will want to meet him for sure.’
I can’t wait for them to meet. My hero, meeting my son. It wouldn’t have been possible without Darrin’s courageousness that night.”
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