Wichita Teen Battled Smoke, Flames To Save Sister

It was Friday the 13th this past February at a house on Jamesburg near 21st and Tyler Road.

In the basement, across from the bedroom where 16-year-old Katie Bevilacqua slept, a candle glowed, despite her older sister's effort to blow it out.

Upstairs, 17-year-old Beth Bevilacqua awoke around 3 a.m. to a fire alarm. Mom's cooking, she thought at first, before she heard 11-year-old brother Zach yell, "Fire!"

Rushing into the hall, Beth inhaled oven-hot air. Flames licked up the laundry chute from below.

Beth made sure her mother, Louise, was awake. Louise went to check on her sons, who had already run outside. Beth used a cell phone to call 911 just before she and her mother climbed out a back window.

Louise's husband, Mike, was away at a church retreat.

The wall of heat in the hallway kept anyone from approaching the stairs leading down to Katie. She was trapped, across from where Beth thought she had blown out the candle.

What happened next earned Beth special recognition from the Wichita Fire Department, which will honor her tonight.

Days before the alarm sounded, Beth's younger brothers had been playing with a shovel in the snow. Louise meant to put the shovel away.

But it stayed outside, near the front porch. The morning of the emergency, the long-handled shovel suddenly became a lifesaving tool.

In the darkness that morning, Louise glanced at it. Grab the shovel, she told Beth. "Go get Katie out." Beth is a Northwest High School soccer player; she can move fast.

Beth has always been determined, her mother says. Standing barefoot in the snow, wearing khakis and a T-shirt, Beth broke one of the small basement windows in Katie's room on the first try, then smashed it three more times to clear out the glass.

It was a gaping, black hole of a window. No sign of Katie.

In the billowing smoke and heat, Katie had passed out. But she came to when she heard the glass break.

Earlier, she had heard an alarm sounding in the downstairs family room but in her sleepy daze, it didn't register. When she realized the danger, smoke and flames already blocked her door, which was nearly closed. The narrow basement windows were the only way out.

She had once decided that if a fire ever erupted, she would use a wooden jewelry case to break out a window. But as she stood on her bed and tried to hoist it up the wall that morning, the heat radiating from the ceiling drove her back down.

She prayed. "I guess I'm done," she thought. Before she passed out, flames had cut a hole through her bedroom door. They made a sound like a towel whipping in the wind.

When Beth broke through the window, Katie was afraid to open her eyes, fearful of seeing the flames again.

Into the black hole Beth yelled, cussed: "Katie where the... are you? Give me your... hand."

Then, Beth felt Katie's hand and wrist, and Beth pulled, hard. Katie left footprints on the wall as she climbed out the window with her sister's help, snagging her clothing on the way out.

Heat and smoke had singed Katie's hair, blistered her lips, covered her in soot. Cuts crisscrossed her hands.

Katie coughed. Her throat stung. She would go to the hospital for smoke inhalation. But she was out. She was OK. Beth hugged her sister.

Beth has asthma, and after pulling her sister out, the exertion and the emotion of it all caused her to hyperventilate. She felt drained. She collapsed.

Afterward, she felt some guilt over the candle she had not quite extinguished.

As for rescuing her sister, she says now: "Anybody would have done that."

But the Wichita Fire Department is recognizing Beth with one of the Distinguished Service Awards it's giving tonight to civilians who help others in emergencies.

Katie was fortunate to survive. Across the state, according to the state fire marshal's office, every week someone dies because of a fire. Every day, someone is injured in a fire. A residential fire is reported every three hours.

Since the fire at Beth and Katie's home, some things have changed. There's a smoke detector now right outside Katie's new bedroom door. There's a new, large bedroom window to ease any escape.

Still, Katie doesn't feel completely secure in the basement. For a while after the fire, she would wake up every hour, look at the door, listen to every sound.

And there is another change in the home: Since the fire, not a single candle has been lighted.