Five years after an off-campus fire that resulted in the deaths of three Miami University students, friends, family and community members continue to remember Stephen Smith, Julie Turnbull and Kate Welling.
While current students were not on campus for the event, many of their lives are touched by the tragedy of April 10, 2005 on a regular basis.
At 4:30 a.m. that day, smoke billowed from the home at 122 N. Main St. after a lit cigarette caught a couch on fire, causing the blaze. Of the projected 13 students in the house that night, 10 were able to evacuate. Kate, a junior and Julie, a senior, both died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation, while the cause of death for Stephen, a senior, was never determined.
Julie’s father, Doug Turnbull, has begun a crusade in honor of his daughter to require more reliable smoke detectors in homes across the state of Ohio.
“I’ve spent the last two years educating fire chiefs in Ohio about the difference between smoke detectors,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull said he is continuing to lay groundwork for an Ohio Senate bill to be proposed near the end of the year that will require homes to contain photoelectric smoke detectors, which detect smoke in a different way from traditional detectors and may alert residents up to 30 minutes sooner.
Stephen’s mother, Edye Smith, has also joined efforts to encourage Congress to pass stricter campus fire safety requirements. She has accompanied campus fire safety representatives to the nation’s capitol three times.
“They have made great strides in getting more money for campus fire safety,” Smith said, but hopes more legislation will be set in motion to protect college students and their families from similar tragedies.
In addition to fire safety efforts, families of the victims have coped with their losses with other initiatives based upon the passions of their children.
In honor of Kate, the Welling family established a disability lecture series that reflects the love she developed for the disabled after taking a disabilities class at Miami. The lecture is held at Miami every year as close to April 10 as possible.
“She had an incredible compassion for those with disabilities, that they should always be treated equally,” said Helen Welling, Kate’s mother.
The Welling family also established scholarships and fellowships at the schools Kate attended from nursery school until college, as well as an internship program for students at her brother’s law school who work in fields related to disabilities.
Kate’s friends in Bronxville, N.Y. also started an annual Thanksgiving run that benefits her school’s foundation because of her involvement in the track team.
Welling said the efforts stemming from Kate’s death are a testament to who Kate was.
“It’s all bittersweet, but she did have an effect on everybody who met her,” Welling said. “We’re very comforted by all of the things done in her memory.”
Kate’s friend Katy Southard believes Kate would be happy about the efforts that have stemmed from the tragedy.
“I know she would want people to learn from this,” Southard said.
The Smith family also took up causes they knew would be close to Stephen, including the Stephen Smith Spirit Award, which is given to a senior at his high school who reflects his effort to be inclusive of everyone around him.
In the same spirit, the Stephen Smith Senior Lounge was established to provide an area for students to bond and spend time together at his former school.
“Stephen was passionate about his friends,” Smith said.
The Turnbull family returns to Oxford often, and works closely with Julie’s sorority, Pi Beta Phi, to raise awareness about the fire. The sorority hosts Julie’s Weekend each year on the anniversary of the fire and raises money for scholarships.
A memorial in front of King Library and benches on campus placed in memory of Kate and Julie are constant reminders of the tragic event.
All of the friends and families of the victims have led the call to require more stringent fire safety requirements, particularly in off-campus student housing.
“The houses up there to be used by the students should be scrutinized by somebody,” Welling said.
Turnbull and Southard both believe students and parents should be more involved in the process of renting homes and ensuring safety.
“Students and parents need to do their part,” Southard said. “They should be taking a closer look.”
Coordinator of Off-Campus Affairs Bobbe Burke said students need to remember the fire safety tips they’ve been taught throughout their lives and be sure poor judgment caused by outside factors, such as alcohol, does not hinder safe choices.
“In many cases students are their own worst enemies because they dismantle the smoke detectors,” Burke said.
According to Burke, no direct efforts have been made to change approaches about fire safety awareness or fire code in Oxford of which she is aware since the fire, but informational materials are available for students upon request.
Burke believes the tragedy of the fire made a lasting impression on Oxford and Miami’s campus.
“This town really cried, they cried as a community,” Burke said.
Families and friends of the victims can only hope their loved ones will not be forgotten and the pain the campus and community felt that day will be a reminder of the importance of fire safety.
“I just hope they remember her,” Turnbull said.