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Firefighters, fire victims stress importance of Fire Prevention Week

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – One Michiana mom, who lost her son and house to a fire earlier this year, hopes sharing her story will encourage others to take Fire Prevention Week seriously.

Fire Prevention Week kicked off on Sunday. The event teaches people how to prevent a fire in their home, and how to get out alive if one happens.

“Never would I have thought we would have a fire,” said South Bend mother Barbie Smith.

During the early morning hours of July 10, clouds of smoke and orange flames engulfed Smith’s Bonfield Place home after a fire started in the kitchen.

“It just seems so unreal,” said Smith.

The house was destroyed, but even more devastating, Smith’s 23-year-old son, Shawki Henderson, died. Family described Henderson as a goofy, caring young man.

“I hear, ‘Your son took in a lot of smoke,’ and then that’s when I just went off. I just was devastated,” said Smith.

Nearly three months later, the house is boarded up. Charred strips of paneling hang off the side of the home. There are flowers and other items memorializing Henderson. Smith said there are more than physical reminders though.

“One day I’ll be okay, but it makes you feel like you just can’t have faith because he didn’t deserve that,” said Smith.

Smith said the fire changed her.

“When I smell trash or something burning… I panic,” said Smith. “Even now, my daughter got her own place. I’m like, is there a window?”

She wants people to understand the importance of “Look, Listen, Learn,” the campaign being taught during Fire Prevention Week.

The South Bend Fire Department said those three steps can prevent fires like Smith’s.

Look means to look for places fire could start around your home. Some common areas include kitchens, heating equipment, and electrical outlets. SBFD added it’s important those areas are clear of clutter and shut off when now in use.

Listen means to listen for the sound of the smoke alarm. Smoke alarms cut a person’s risk of dying in a fire in half. Experts advise testing them once a month. They should be on every floor and in each bedroom.

Learn means to learn a home escape plan. The plan should include two ways out of each room, a path from each exit to outside, and an outside meeting place a safe distance from the house. It’s also important to practice the plan.

“There’s a lot of things that are predictable, so they are preventable,” said South Bend Fire Department captain Gerard Ellis. “If we can… reduce, death or injury on the front side, that’s where the education and the risk reduction and all of that comes into play.”

Smith said it never crossed her mind to have that conversation or make a plan, but added if other families took the time to talk about it, it could prevent another family from the grief she’s experiencing.

“I don’t wish this on my worst enemy,” said Smith. “The day I had him, never thinking in 23 years you would be dead from a house fire.”

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