On the chilly night of December 3, 2016, the Akron, OH, fire department received an urgent call from dispatch. There was a raging house fire on East Tallmadge Avenue, with multiple reports of children trapped on the second floor.
Lieutenant Mark Pazdernik and his crew arrived at the house a few minutes later. With the first floor completely engulfed in flames, he climbed up a ladder to a second-floor window and used his ax to break into a bedroom. “It was completely blackened by smoke,” he says. “You couldn’t see anything. We were doing everything by feel.”
A few feet from the window, he found Shaniya Simpson, then 12, unconscious and crumpled on the floor. He scooped her up and passed her down the ladder to the paramedics, who were able to resuscitate her as they raced to the hospital.
Shaniya’s family wasn’t so fortunate: In one terrible night, Shaniya lost her parents and two younger sisters—all her blood relatives except her maternal grandmother, Vicki Wallis, who was thousands of miles away on vacation in Arizona. (A subsequent investigation revealed that there was no indication of working smoke alarms in the house.)
Hours later, Shaniya’s teacher, Kim Canterbury, was headed home from a holiday breakfast with her family when the school principal called her with the news. Kim knew that Shaniya, who was on the autism spectrum and had developmental delays, would need to see a familiar face. &l