Story and photo by Brian DeLoche
Red Cross Volunteer
More than 100 volunteers pushing bright orange shopping carts equipped with ladders, tools and smoke alarms paraded away from the Mattis Avenue Free Methodist Church March 25 intent on honoring the memory of one young man who died because his home lacked working smoke alarms.
The Champaign Fire Department, partnering with the American Red Cross, sponsored a home smoke alarm installation event to mark the first anniversary of the fire that claimed the life of Christian Sheehan, 23, March 26, 2016.
Clad in white T-shirts that bore a modified but familiar looking super hero logo that stood for “Sheehan Strong on the front, with the hashtag “#Christian Strong” on the back, the volunteers went door-to-door intent on installing smoke alarms and raising home fire safety awareness. Ironically enough, the route from the church to the neighborhood being canvassed led volunteers past the charred foundation, all that remains of the home Sheehan shared with a friend. Julie Shuler, 26, who was visiting Sheehan’s roommate, also died in the fire.
For the Sheehan family, the Home Fire Campaign marked the culmination of an emotional week that saw not only the anniversary of the fire, but the day that would have been their late son’s 24th birthday.
There were tears at the start of the day as friends and family remembered Christian. There were tears of joy and laughter as they shared remembrances of a young man his parents gleefully admitted “was no saint.” More importantly, there were tears of celebration at the end of the day when the announcement came that more than 200 smoke alarms had been installed in 53 homes in just 3 hours’ time. “This is so amazing,” Joy said. “I was hoping we would get 100. I never dreamed we’d get this many (installed).
“What we did today — what you did today — made a difference,” Champaign Fire Chief Gary Ludwig told the volunteers. “You made a difference because the probability is in the next 10 years, one of the homes that received smoke alarms today will have a fire, and the probability is what you did today may have saved lives. In the past year, we have lost four lives in home fires. I don’t want to see us lose any more.”
The day was also significant for Champaign Firefighter Ralph Russell. Mr. Russell was on duty June 21, 2007 when his engine was dispatched to a familiar sounding address.
“When we pulled up on scene, I told my lieutenant, ‘I have family that lives in this house. What am I supposed to do?” The lieutenant, Mr. Russell said, had never been in that situation before. He said, “I guess we have to go do our jobs.” Mr. Russell’s sister-in-law lost her husband and a child in that fire. “There were two smoke alarms in the house,” he said. “One didn’t have a battery in it, and the one had a battery in it but it was disconnected.”
Mr. Russell summed up the importance of the day’s smoke alarm installation campaign in just one sentence. “It’s such a minor thing that can result in a major loss if it’s not used.”
For Rob and Joy Sheehan, being part of the Home Fire Campaign was something they felt compelled to do. “It feels good being able to bring something so good out of something that was so devastating,” Joy said.
“You can be bitter, or you can be joyful,” Joy continued. “It’s what Christian would want us to do,” Rob added.
The Sheehans had great praise for the fire department’s effort to get the word out and get some alarms into peoples’ homes. “The fire department is like family to us now,” Rob added. “These guys are my brothers now.” The Sheehans also praised Deb Goettig, the American Red Cross Disaster Program Specialist for the Champaign area. “We couldn’t have done this without her help.”
“This was absolutely an unqualified success,” Fire Chief Ludwig added. It’s amazing to see so many people turn out not because they had to be here, but because they wanted to be here.”
The Sheehans now hope to make this an annual event to keep their son’s memory alive and to help prevent any more fire deaths in Champaign.