In the prime of life

On her 25th birthday, Erin Conklin made a resolution. “By the time I turned 30, I wanted to have a master’s degree, a good career, or be in a position where I could own a home,” she said during an interview in her cellar apartment in north Asheville. “Well, 30 came, and I’m as far away as ever.”

The insidious fire that crept along the hallways and up the staircases of Conklin’s apartment building five years ago is what busted up her dreams. Five years later, she’s still fighting to reclaim her life. “It’s so overwhelming, so frustrating, and I get so tired sometimes,” she says. “I was in the prime of my life.”

During the frigid pre-dawn hours of Dec. 21, 1994, two youths poured a buck’s worth of kerosene in the rear stairwell of the Grace Apartments; the resulting blaze killed one person and maimed two others. With flames in the hallway, many of the 15 sleeping tenants had to jump from second- and third-story windows to save their lives. Conklin fell from her third floor windowsill and broke her neck — but not before suffering disfiguring burns on her hands and arms.

Today, a bit of foundation, some weeds and a huge hole in the ground are the only visual reminders of where the Grace Apartments once stood on West Chestnut Street. But the memories are vivid.

James Carlton, who lives next to the barren lot, says he’ll never forget. Carlton’s wife woke him up around 3:20 a.m., after she heard someone screaming “fire”; when he looked out his window, the whole back of the building was already in flames. By the time he got outside, people were running around in their bedclothes, and Conklin was hanging on by her fingertips.

“I went with another guy to get a ladder, and I yelled to her to just hang on,” Carlton recalls. “I guess she just couldn’t.”

Two weeks before the fire, Conklin had removed the battery from her room’s smoke detector, because it kept going off inappropriately. Luckily, she says, she’s a light sleeper and heard the alarm down the hall. She put her hands to the hallway door; it was warm, so she called 911. The authorities said help was on the way, and she wasn’t terrified yet.

A few minutes later, Conklin felt the door again. “It was hot, this time.” Smoke and radiant heat had started filling the apartment, and she forced herself to climb out the window, even though she’s scared of heights. She hung there for what seemed like hours (it was actually only a couple of minutes, according to witnesses — a mind trick psychiatrists call “time dilation”), until all three layers of skin had burned off her hands.

“I could smell my own flesh burning, and I could see the tendons in my hands,” she recalls. It was only adrenaline that enabled her to hang on as long as she did, doctors have since told her. Eventually, “A very peaceful feeling came over me,” she remembers. “I felt if I let go and hit the ground, I would be dead — and it would just be over.”

Conklin did let go, and the ground struck the blow that broke her neck. Moments later, she says, an explosion that might have killed her ignited the air in her apartment: “It’s called a flashover, and it has to be over 1,000 degrees for that to happen.”

She survived the fire, but Conklin’s agonizing ordeal was just beginning. For the next three-and-a-half weeks, she was completely immobilized in a back brace. During that time, Conklin had the first of the 25-to-30 surgeries she’s since endured — so many, she can’t even remember anymore. “The burns were so deep, they literally sewed my hands into my hips,” she says. “The only thing I could move was my toes.”

In the hospital in Winston-Salem, it was two months before she could feed herself; four months before she could walk; nine months before she could live on her own again. And even now, she uses the latter phrase advisedly, because the taxpayers have borne the financial burden of her recovery. Her medical bills, she estimates, have cost the federal government more than $1 million — and then there’s the cost of her room and board.

For five years, Conklin says she’s fought to restart her life. “I’ve had a lot of setbacks on my way to finding a job,” she reveals. “It’s so hard to get out from under the Department of Social Services.” Conklin and her boyfriend want to get married, but she fears losing her Medicaid benefits, because her medical woes still aren’t over.

In March, she had surgery yet again. The fire destroyed most of the cartilage in her hands, and doctors had reconstructed her joints. But recently, a huge, painful bulge appeared on her right hand, where a wiring screw inserted during a past surgery was trying to poke its way through.

“I haven’t been driving much,” she says, trying to inject some humor into the difficult situation.

Conklin still sees a therapist to help her deal with the trauma and has taken all varieties of painkillers. “I’m used to mild, chronic depression,” she reveals. Christmas, she says, is particularly tough. She never really liked the holidays, anyway — and now, of course, December sparks painful memories.

It’s been four years since a jury decided that Jamie Lamont Smith should die for his role in setting the Grace Apartments fire. His accomplice, 19-year-old James Damon Davidison, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 25 years. The blaze also claimed the life of 27-year-old David Cotton and caused his friend, 25-year-old Alison Kafer, to lose her legs.

Smith’s getting the death penalty, says Conklin, was the first positive thing that had happened to her since the fire. “There are some things that are right in the world,” she observes.

Smith was later tried and convicted for raping 19-year-old Kelly Froemke (on Jan. 18, 1995), stabbing her to death and then setting her place on fire, to cover up what he’d done. While Smith’s second trial hadn’t started yet when he was sentenced to die in the Grace trial, Asheville Assistant District Attorney Al Williams says the aggravating factors — two murders, a rape and two arsons — had weighed on the jury’s minds and proved Smith’s undoing.

“It’s a horrible thing to set an apartment building on fire during the middle of the night, knowing there were people inside sleeping,” says Williams. “I think, personally, he forfeited his right to breathe air.”

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