Ohio Teen Dies Saving Her Baby From House Fire

April 23, 2013
When a fire broke out in her home, the 16-year-old girl saved her baby by placing her outside a window on a porch roof before perishing in the blaze.

April 23--During her pregnancy, Acairia Watkins did her best to stay healthy, and she tried to keep her chin up, too.

But she worried: about what the kids at school thought, about her college plans, about what kind of parent she would be at 16 years old.

"Mom," she used to ask, "when are my motherly instincts going to kick in?"

Nicole Battle reassured her. "You'll know, Acairia. You'll know."

And she did know, when the terrible moment came, that the only thing that mattered was her child, a baby girl whom Acairia had quickly learned to love and to nurse and to cradle in one arm while doing homework with the other.

The fire and smoke the teenager fought through would have turned back many a grown man, Columbus firefighters said. They don't toss the word hero around much, but in Acairia's case, Capt. Dave Roggenkamp said, it fits.

"The hero here is the girl," he said. "What she did saved the baby."

Acairia's funeral yesterday was as full of tribute as of mourning, with hundreds of family members, friends, classmates and teachers gathering to remember the Columbus Alternative High School sophomore.

"The manner in which she died was no surprise to those who knew her best," Principal Sharee Wells said. "She was strong, resilient, and had a quiet sense of grace about her."

Three days after giving birth last month, Acairia was back at school to take her Ohio Graduation Tests. An honor-roll student, she was one of just 25 Columbus students chosen for the DeVry Advantage, a program that allows high-school students to attend DeVry University full time.

"She was a wonderful student," Wells said.

The fire that broke out early on April 12 began after a stove burner was left on, firefighters said. Battle and her partner, Daneisha Wilson, 28, shared the E. Long Street duplex with Acairia and her infant daughter, and with Battle's younger daughter, 11-year-old Terrionna Watkins.

Battle, 36, said Wilson had gone downstairs to cook at some point. Hours later, the family awoke to blaring smoke alarms."Mom!" Acairia shouted. "I can't breathe!"

Columbus Station 8 is just two doors away, but by the time firefighters arrived, thick smoke already had made it impossible to see. Terrionna escaped through a second-floor window, and Battle jumped off the porch roof. "I was determined to get to the side of the house for Acairia to throw the baby to me," Battle said.Acairia was trying to push her way forward, crawling with her month-old daughter, Mar'Kia Jamar. Firefighter Bill Grubb heard screams and told his captain he was going in. "But they weren't there," he said.

Grubb was forced back outside in less than two minutes, his gear so hot he couldn't be touched. He reported that he wasn't able to conduct a good search for victims.

Another firefighter climbed onto the porch roof and, groping in the dark, reached through a second-story window. Somewhere, a baby was crying. Colleagues yelled for the firefighter to feel in front of him.

He found Mar'Kia on the porch roof, safe between the window and his knees. Acairia had managed to get her baby out the window.

"Within just a few seconds of not getting the proper amount of oxygen, you start to lose your faculties," firefighter Joe Cleary said. "You make poor decisions. She had the presence to actually lay the baby outside the window."

Although firefighters say they can't be certain, they think Acairia then turned back for Wilson. Both were found unconscious. "There's no doubt in my mind," Battle said. "She went back in to try to save Daneisha. They loved each other."

Wilson died later that night in Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. Acairia died two days later, on April 14, in Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Acairia's friends are heartbroken but not surprised that her last actions were heroic attempts to do the right thing.

She was understanding and kind, they said, but had a no-nonsense way about her. She didn't like challenges to become excuses. "If you did wrong, she told you," said Daila Wilson, 15. "She didn't sugarcoat."

Kennadi McCoy, 15, said her friend was "persevering and diligent." Acairia hadn't wanted to be a teen mom, and sometimes the fear and frustration moved her to tears, McCoy said. But she didn't consider giving up.

"She was a very special young lady," Keisha Gibbs, manager at the Martin Luther King branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, said during the funeral. Acairia, an avid reader, was an intern there.

Blessing Famule, 16, played viola alongside Acairia in the school orchestra. Their two chairs were separated once. They convinced their instructor that, until they were reunited, the music would suffer.

"Even with the baby," Blessing said before a spring concert on Thursday, "she still played the music better than I do."

Proceeds from the concert were given to Acairia's family -- she also is survived by older brother Trevon Watkins and father Terry Watkins -- to help with funeral expenses. Wells, the principal, also announced that Columbus Alternative is establishing a scholarship fund for Acairia's daughter.

Battle said she's counting on a steady supply of loving baby sitters for her granddaughter. The baby will be "going to college dorms," Battle said, smiling at her daughter's friends. "Your college dorms."

Acairia was to have graduated in 2015. Wells said the school family won't forget. They already have plans to present the diploma to her daughter.

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Copyright 2013 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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