Firefighters honored by grieving Crafton Heights family
Sheran White remembers running up the street in her pajamas, not knowing if her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren had made it out of the burning house alive.
"I remember rounding the corner, and ... you could see how alive the flames were, how demonic they appeared to be, how fast they could consume the house," she said.
It was a year ago today that flames tore through the house on Litchfield Street in Crafton Heights, killing her two grandsons, William James White IV, 10, and Jordan James White, 4. Their mother, Aisha White, 30, suffered burns to 30 percent of her body, including her arms and face, but was able to save her 6-year-old daughter, Paje Marie.
Though the family is still suffering, the Whites want to observe the anniversary of the boys' deaths not by mourning, but by giving thanks to the firefighters who tried to save their lives.
"All I could see that night were these men running inside this burning house, breaking out the windows, yelling back and forth to each other," said Sheran White, who works at the Allegheny Center Alliance Church in the North Side.
"They were determined to get my boys out of there. I remember thinking: They don't even know my boys and they're running into that building," their grandmother said.
White will spend the day thanking and praying for firefighters. She hopes others will do the same, urging friends and family to honk their car horns as they pass their local station, to say thanks in person, or perhaps send a card.
City fire Chief Darryl Jones said White's intentions leave him "very humbled."
"We don't request or require thanks," Jones said. "In fact, most of the firefighters at the scene probably felt pretty sad that they weren't successful in their rescue attempts."
Firefighters take any loss of life personally, he said, even more so when the victim is a child.
"You're depressed," Jones said. "You have a community who is counting on you to get them out of these situations, and you feel like you failed."
Jones responded to the fire and said he won't soon forget what he saw there.
"You just see it on all the guys' faces," Jones said. "It takes some time to reconcile with it, to not blame yourself. We just hate it when this happens. You've got to remember, we live here. This is our community. Sometimes it's children who we see running up and down the streets. (When a child dies), it affects us in many ways."
Jones said the department recently started a program in city schools that gives kids at least one hour of fire and other safety education classes per month. He also praised the work of Pittsburgh Fire Capt. Jim Wyzomirski, who created a fire safety kit for kids containing a smoke detector, flashlight, whistle, American flag for waving out a window and wooden hammer for breaking a window.
Wyzomirski's crew from station No. 8 in East Liberty was the first to arrive at a Winslow Street fire in June 2007 that killed five children.
"That disturbed him," Jones said. "He designed this survival kit, brought it to me, and I love it. ... We have really made an attempt to try to assure that this is the last time we lose any of our city's kids in a fire."
The White family, meanwhile, will try to move on.
Aisha White is "doing as well as could be expected," Sheran White said. Paje Marie misses her big brothers, but is happily occupied by her new pet Yorkie.
And while they still hurt, today they just want to say thanks.
"They were amazing," Sheran White said of the firefighters. "We just want to show our gratitude, and have others join us in that."