SURVIVORS, COMMUNITY SEARCH FOR MEANING IN FIRE
By STAN SWOFFORD, Staff Writer
Greensboro News & Record
February 15, 2003
GREENSBORO -- The fire that roared through the Campus Walk Apartments a year ago today seared the date 2/15 into the minds of those it touched, directly and indirectly, as indelibly as terrorists branded 9/11 into the nation's psyche a year earlier.
Just as the country changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001, nothing has been the same since Feb. 15, 2002 -- and will never be -- for the Campus Walk survivors, the families of the four young adults who perished in the blaze and, of course, Janet Danahey, the young woman who started the fire.
The tragedy also has had a profound impact on those it affected peripherally, such as attorneys and prosecutors; owners of the Campus Walk property; and people so concerned with Danahey's sentence of life without parole that they started a movement to change the law under which she was sentenced.
Most of these people have dreaded this day. This is especially true for the parents of the families of the young man and women who died in the blaze: sisters Donna Llewellyn, 24, and Rachel Llewellyn 21; Beth Harris, 20; and Ryan Bek, 25. Donna Llewellyn worked in the financial aid office at Greensboro College, and her sister, Rachel, was a nursing student at UNCG. Bek, Donna Llewellyn's boyfriend, was a computer specialist at Greensboro College. Harris majored in music education at UNCG.
Their lives were like unfinished works of art, said Ryan Bek's father, Jim Bek, during a televised interview a few days ago. Today begins a series of long, unwritten chapters, empty pages that Bek said he and other parents can only wonder what might have contained.
That void is what is worst, especially at holidays, he and other parents said. "You hope you don't start crying in public," he said.
Ryan Bek, the Llewellyn sisters and Harris died about 2:30 a.m. last Feb. 15 when a third-floor walkway collapsed as they tried to flee the wooden 12-unit apartment building. Danahey had started the fire minutes earlier by igniting what she said was a box of Christmas decorations and a futon outside the apartment of her ex-boyfriend. It was meant as a prank, she said, not to hurt anyone or destroy the apartment building.
But there was a stiff breeze that night, and the fire, fueled by lighter fluid Danahey used, spread quickly. Within minutes, flames enveloped the entire breezeway of the complex, shot up the wooden staircases, and were licking at the doors and walls of apartments, home for 36 young men and women.
Soon, windows began popping, and thick, acrid smoke poured into the apartments. Residents awoke and began to scream.
The screaming awoke Rhonda Close, a UNCG student visiting her boyfriend, UNCG student Chris Cox, in his first-floor apartment. The two ran over coals and were pelted with falling embers as they barely escaped the building with their lives. Cox received second- and third-degree burns on his feet, and his soul was scarred forever, he said.
Cox looked up and thought he saw four figures on the third floor running toward the stairs at the end of the walkway, but he says he can't be sure. Cox knew Rachel Llewellyn well. The two went to Europe together as part of a high school academic program when they attended Page High School. "You know when you hear about people who are very good? I mean real good? Well, she was one of those people."
Cox and Close stood shivering with chill and fright as they watched people jump from second- and third-story windows. Some of them landed hard and broke bones.
Raechel Kowalski didn't break anything, but she landed smack on her tailbone. It still hurts, she said. When Kowalski, now a UNCG senior, woke up that night, flames were flickering on the wall. Kowalski yelled and shook awake her roommates, UNCG students Virginia Frazelle and Sarah Bolton. Bolton called 911, and then the three ran to a bedroom window. About 30 feet below, Mike Kernodle and Ronnie Buchanan, two customers from the nearby bar Hugo's, urged people to jump and tried to break their falls. Kowalski said the two prevented her from breaking anything.
Bolton landed hard, but she didn't break anything, either. Frazelle broke her collar bone.
Meanwhile, Clayton Halls, who lived in an apartment across from Kowalski and her roommates, woke up and smelled smoke. He awakened his roommate, Brent Brooks, and the two UNCG students ran to the door. Brooks opened it a crack, and the heat almost made him pass out, Halls said. They ran to a window and jumped, just as flames began consuming their apartment.
A year later, the former Campus Walk tenants believe their brush with death changed them considerably, some more than others. They wonder why they were spared while others perished. Each speaks of an appreciation of life that they did not have, or did not recognize, before the fire. Each speaks of an awareness of death and the fragility of life that is unusual in people so young.
Their initial anger toward Danahey has been tempered by time, although not all have rid themselves of it completely. Cox said Danahey deserves her sentence of life without parole.
"Why didn't she help us?" Cox said. "She said she was scared. I was scared, too."
Cox said he had a rough time coming to terms with the fire and its aftermath. "I was really messed up for a while," he said. The smell of smoke traumatizes him. He was driving along Lawndale Drive recently when he came upon a fire at an apartment building near his home. "I had to pull over to the side of the road," he said. "It brought it all back -- the sound, the smell, the fear, everything."
Halls, and those who know him, say the fire changed him dramatically. Halls said he became convinced that God had a purpose in taking the four young people. He started going to church and became much more spiritual. He stopped swearing and drinking, and focused his life on helping people.
"These were all wonderful Christian people that God took, and I think he did it as a sacrifice for others. They were part of His plan, and it's allowed me to open my eyes. My goal is to help people now, every day, even if it's just to smile."
Halls said he forgave Danahey long ago. He said he knows that she, too, believes that there was a reason for the fire. He said he'd like to talk with her.
Kowalski and Bolton are not as angry at Danahey as they were immediately after the fire, but they're not ready to say she should have her sentence reduced. Like Cox, they want some answers. Bolton said she intends to write Danahey a letter today, asking her why she didn't try to put out the fire or warn people when it got out of hand.
Danahey's sentence sparked a movement to change the felony-murder rule in North Carolina. It was this rule that allowed Guilford District Attorney Stuart Albright to charge Danahey with first-degree murder and subject her to a possible death sentence. The rule states that if anyone is killed during the commission of a felony, the person who committed the felony can be charged with murder and sentenced to death, even if the death was an accident or if the person committing the felony did not cause the death. Intent is not necessary under the felony-murder rule.
Shortly after Danahey was sentenced to life without parole, George Brown of Jamestown and several other people in Greensboro and High Point organized North Carolina Citizens for Felony Murder Rule Change. They and others felt that Danahey should not have been charged with first-degree murder because she did not have the intent to harm anyone. Brown said recently that people from every part of the state have joined the movement to change the felony-murder rule, and will soon be contacting legislators.
Any change in the rule would not, by itself, affect Danahey's sentence because it would not be retroactive. It could, however, make it easier for a governor to commute, or reduce, her sentence.
Albright said he would oppose any move to reduce Danahey's sentence.
"What she did was no different than taking a gun and shooting into an apartment building," he said. Albright said Danahey used what amounted to a deadly weapon. "I say that fire plus an accelerant plus wood equals a deadly weapon, and she surely must have known, or should have known, that it was a deadly weapon."
Although Bob Harris, Beth Harris' father, said he would not be opposed to a reduction of Danahey's sentence, other parents of the victims have indicated they would be opposed.
Beth Harris' mother said she would be strongly opposed to a change in the felony-murder rule or a reduction in Danahey's sentence.
"The felony-murder rule serves as an effective ally for the innocent victims of malicious actions by evildoers," said Crystal Knight. "The rule must withstand the misguided efforts by those who want to change it. In a society where blame for one's actions is so easily excused for one reason or another, the felony-murder rule can be the one legal tool that, by its definition, cannot be diluted or diminished."
Knight said she was glad Danahey pleaded guilty and avoided the death penalty because Knight's daughter, Beth Harris, wrote in her journal that she did not believe in the death penalty. "Only God can make that decision," Beth Harris wrote.
"I do believe in the death penalty," Knight said. "But I would have to defer to Beth."
There is only a concrete slab at 904 Howard St., where the Campus Walk Apartments complex used to be. Royce Hawley, manager of Signature Property Group, which owned Campus Walk, said there are no firm plans yet for the site. Whatever is built on the site, Feb. 15, 2002, "will never be forgotten," Hawley said. "It was a tragedy beyond all proportion."
Bolton and Kowalski planned to go to the site early this morning. "We want to be there with our own thoughts. We'll take some flowers with us. It will be our memorial."
The News & Record asked Janet Danahey whether she had anything to say to the families of the victims, the survivors and the community on the first anniversary of the Campus Walk fire. She sent this letter:
A year has passed since the tragic fire that engulfed the Campus Walk Apartments, taking the lives of Donna Lewellyn, Rachel Lewellyn, Beth Harris, and Ryan Bek. I was the one who caused their lives to be lost. A year later, my soul grieves, as if the pain is as fresh as the first day. Since that horrid night, I have followed up on the lives of those left behind. Best friends of the victims, students and tenants rebuilding their lives, parents dealing with children still feeling unsafe and hurt. Time has passed, but some part of us all was left back there in the charred ruins. I close my eyes and see those lost before me. I wish I could turn back time. I wish the four victims could have lived instead of me. The innocent are taken while those left behind wonder why.Perhaps God takes those who are perfect enough to be with Him. Perhaps there is work to be done for me to complete. My sorrow for the families of the victims is deeper than the ocean and hurts daily I cannot take back what I have done. I cannot bring their children back. But I would like to attempt in some way to restore their hope in life. These families experienced the nightmare every parent fears. Some in the community felt that I should be sentenced to death for my actions. I am here to tell you that life is worse than death because you must live every day with the pain and guilt. I had hoped change would come for the fire codes of existing structures around apartments. I hope children have learned from this tragedy that stupid pranks can become deadly. The senseless loss of life must be averted. As you come together with loved ones this Valentine's Day, please pray for the families affected by my actions, that they may find peace in this painful hour of remembrance. I dedicate my life to the memories of Donna, Rachel, Beth, and Ryan. To the victims' families, to their friends, to my community; I am so sorry for what I have done and I will grieve forever for my actions.
Stan Swofford is not affiliated with ncfelonymurder.org or NCCFMRC in any way.
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