El Dorado, Kansas Student Jumped From Fire

Nicole Bingham looked forward to fall break at the University of Kansas, because it meant being able to come home to Wichita for her 22nd birthday this Wednesday.

That's what Bingham told Renee Wallace, her best friend since high school. But Wallace hasn't heard from Bingham since last Thursday night, hours before fire destroyed her apartment complex in Lawrence.

Shelby Oaks of El Dorado doesn't know what woke her up just after midnight Friday in her one-bedroom apartment at the Boardwalk. It certainly wasn't the smoke alarm, which she said didn't sound until she leapt from her second-floor bedroom window onto the parking lot.

The two women were among the 32 KU students who lived at the Boardwalk.

Bingham is still missing.

Oaks, 22, is recovering from cuts and from second-degree burns on her feet.

Searchers said Monday that they'd recovered three bodies. None was identified. But Mark Bradford, interim chief of the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical Department, said during a news conference that authorities are confident they've accounted for all 87 residents.

The Shawnee County Medical Examiner in Topeka is trying to identify the remains of the three people, a process Bradford said could take weeks.

"There were three missing, and three bodies were found recovered," said Jodi Litfin, president of the Alpha Delta Pi Sorority, of which Bingham was a member. "They haven't been positively identified. That's what we're waiting for."

By Monday, it had become an agonizing wait for friends and family, whose hopes dwindle as days pass.

Two others were identified through families and co-workers. They are believed to be social worker Yolanda Riddle and Jose Gonzalez, a 50-year-old electrician. Gonzalez's sister, Maria Gonzalez, continues to go to the apartments, waiting for her brother to turn up.

Oaks said she thinks Jose Gonzalez lived downstairs and three doors down from her. She said her heart ached over the sad uncertainty shadowing the families of Bingham and the others.

Bingham and Oaks never met, but both had only recently moved into the complex in the 500 block of Fireside Drive.

Maybe it was the heat that awoke Oaks.

"It was just by the grace of God," Oaks told The Eagle on Monday night.

Oaks saw her front door in blazes. She thought hers was the only apartment on fire.

Investigators still haven't pin-pointed the fire's source. Bradford said the center of the complex looked to be the hottest spot of the fire, where it possibly started and quickly spread across the 50-year-old wooden structure.

Oaks walked to her front door, but when she stepped on the linoleum in her entryway, it melted to the bottoms of her feet.

Suddenly, Oaks looked around to see her living room on fire and the apartment filling up with smoke. She went to her bedroom, smashed through the glass of the window with her right hand, now wrapped in bandages. She perched on the window frame.

As she jumped, she heard the smoke alarm blare. A man tried to catch Oaks, breaking her fall, so she landed on her feet. He did the same for a pregnant woman next door to Oaks, who also made the leap.

Oaks heard what sounded like explosions, and windows blew out apartments several doors away. She tried to limp away with her burned feet. She pleaded with a man to help her, but he shook his head, ran to a truck and drove away. She had jumped out on the side of the building opposite firefighters and other emergency personnel.

Another man lifted Oaks and carried her on his back to the other side of the building. Rescuers pointed them to another area, and the man carried Oaks on his back again, farther from danger.

The man, who Oaks guessed to be in his late 30s or early 40s, then waited with her until help arrived to take her to Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

"I didn't even get his name," Oaks said. "But I owe him so much."

Monday, Oaks sat in a wheelchair at her parents' home in El Dorado, e-mailing her instructors and trying to salvage what was supposed to be her final semester at KU.

Oaks may have to wait until spring to graduate with a double major in psychology and sociology.

But she still plans to return to Lawrence in January to marry Luke James.

"It does not matter if I have to be wheeled down the aisle," she said.

Renee Wallace and Nicole Bingham graduated together from North High in 2002.

Friends had always worried Bingham might die young because of a heart problem she'd had most of her life. She'd had open-heart surgery as a teenager.

By Thursday, Wallace and Bingham had already talked by phone several times that week. Bingham looked forward to a birthday in Wichita with her friends and boyfriend.

"She just wanted to hang and kick it," Wallace said.

Bingham liked to dance and listen to music, songs such as "Coin-Operated Boy" by the Dresden Dolls or "Undone -- the Sweater Song," an 11-year-old tune from the band Weezer.

"She likes the classics," Wallace said.

"Heathers" and "The Breakfast Club" were among Bingham's favorite movies.

Bingham also liked being an Alpha Delta Pi because of the service projects.

"She's always been big into helping people, working with children and volunteering for charities," Wallace said.

Wallace remembered what she and Bingham said as they hung up Thursday night:

"Love ya. Bye."

Distributed by the Associated Press