May 5, 2013 in City

Months after rescuing family from fire, man loses his fight

‘I held his hand and hugged his head until he went on his own way’
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Jessica Hammond and her children, from left, Kaiden Nettleingham, 3, Ella Apperson, 15 months, and Lainey Nettleingham, 5, and their pet, Zoie, survived a December house fire in which Jessica and Ella were rescued by Hammond’s fiance, Shawn Apperson.
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For five months, Dave Apperson left his landscaping job early every Friday and drove to Harborview Medical Center to see his son.

For five months, Jessica Hammond was terrified to go back to work, afraid if she wasn’t with her kids in Spokane or visiting her fiance at the hospital in Seattle, something tragic would happen.

For five months, Melissa Apperson balanced classes and homework with weekly trips to Seattle. She would tell her brother about all the songs that made her think of him.

And for five months, Shawn Apperson endured dozens of surgeries in the hospital’s famous burn unit. He survived bouts of pneumonia, unstable blood pressure, kidney failure and heart problems.

It ended Friday. Shawn died after his care team removed him from the ventilator that has kept him alive each day since he rescued his fiancee and their baby girl from their burning Central Avenue home one cold December morning.

After pushing Jessica and their baby through a window, Shawn, 29, collapsed trying to fight his way upstairs to rescue the couple’s three other children.

Neighbors broke out windows to rescue two of them. A firefighter who burst into the home carried out the third – a frightened 3-year-old boy who hid at the sound of breaking glass.

Apperson’s story may have faded from the public’s memory this year. But his bravery is honored by his family and friends.

“My son is a hero,” Dave said.

The family made the trip to Seattle last week knowing it would be their last.

Until a month ago, Shawn was awake, alert and finding ways to communicate. He’d even fought from his hospital bed with his siblings over the TV remote and listened to his kids talk to him on the phone. Doctors had been able to repair the skin burned over 65 percent of his body.

And then 18 terrible minutes: A sudden cardiac arrest left him paralyzed. His health spiraled.

Just a week ago Shawn’s father, Dave, said, “We all still have faith and hope,” even as he remained mindful of Shawn’s suffering.

On Friday afternoon, surrounded by his family, he passed away.

“I held his hand and hugged his head until he went on his own way,” his father said.

Hoping for healing

As the entire family grieves, their focus remains on Shawn and Jessica’s four children. Each is younger than 6.

The children carry the fright of the fiery morning with them still.

“The stairs are on fire! The stairs are on fire!” 3-year-old Kaiden yelled recently. Jessica threw open the door, fearing another tragedy. She found Kaiden standing in the middle of the bathroom as safe as he could be.

“I asked him, ‘Why are you saying that?’ ” Jessica said. “He just looked at me with a blank stare.”

The children have lingering trauma, including the loss of Shawn’s presence in their lives.

After firefighters pulled terrified Kaiden from his hiding place in a hallway, the boy spent a week in the hospital to treat smoke inhalation. He still wheezes on occasion.

And fire burned the tips of Ella’s toes when Shawn placed her on a griddle-hot basement floor so that he could smash the window and push her out to safety. She was 10 months old and on the verge of taking her first steps before the fire altered how her life would unfold.

She wouldn’t try again for two months.

Cooking smells now make the kids nervous.

All four kids were living with Shawn and Jessica when the fire started. Five-year-old Sam is Shawn’s son from a previous relationship, and Kaiden and 5-year-old Lainey are Jessica’s children from a previous relationship. Ella is their only child together.

Jessica, 22, said the six were a family nonetheless, and Shawn was dad to all of them.

Over their three years living together – not to mention the 10 years before that they knew each other as kids in the same neighborhood – they worked together at a Chili’s restaurant and were finally able to move into their Central Avenue home.

“We started out from nothing,” Jessica said. “Our bedroom was the living room floor.”

The fire forced the family out of the home until remodeling is finished, although Jessica said she isn’t sure she wants to move back.

The fire department determined the cause of the fire to be a cigarette that an overnight houseguest had left burning before leaving for work around 7 a.m. as the family slept. The fire trapped Shawn, Jessica and Ella in their basement bedrooms until Shawn broke out the window.

A few months later, Jessica went back to work at Chili’s and moved into an apartment with three of the children. Sam has spent more time with his mother, who Jessica said has been extremely helpful through their ordeal.

The one weekend Jessica stayed behind from Seattle and worked was when Shawn went into cardiac arrest. She took another leave of absence from work, unable to bear the thought of not being there for Shawn or her kids.

After months of exhaustion from having kids with her every time she went grocery shopping or took out the trash, Jessica moved back into her parents’ home last week.

Their first day there, she taught each child how to get out of the house if there was a fire. They practiced crawling, opening windows and touching doorknobs to see if they are hot.

She also made sure the smoke detectors work. Jessica said a fire investigator told her if the smoke detectors in their Central Avenue home had been working they may have been awakened 20 minutes earlier.

Staying focused

Jessica and Shawn were supposed to get married in June. Jessica said she wanted to go to school to become a medical technician, but now she is afraid anything medical will remind her of Shawn.

“Everywhere I go in this town, there’s a memory,” she said.

Dave Apperson has used work as an escape. His landscape job at the Iron Bridge building provides a peaceful place filled with trees and flowers instead of hospital beds and tubes.

“This is my serenity,” he said as he dug around a flower bed near the Spokane River a few weeks ago. “This is where I pray and get it out.”

He remembers the times when Shawn would bring the kids down to the river to hang with their grandpa while he worked.

Shawn’s sister Melissa, 30, is about to start pharmacy school and said she pushed through these last few months knowing she would one day be able to help support her nieces and nephews.

“It’s been really hard to stay focused because all I care about is my brother,” Melissa said. “I want to stay focused because I want to be able to help the kids out.”

Jessica said friends and family have been essential to her survival the last five months. Her parents and brother have been caregivers for her children. Shawn’s mother lives in Oregon and was a constant presence at the hospital. Dave drove Jessica and his daughters Melissa and Jessie to see their brother every weekend.

The family has relied on each other and the community for support. Friends and local businesses have pitched in to hold benefit concerts and other fundraisers, collecting thousands of dollars for the family so they could stay in Seattle with Shawn each weekend.

Churches the family doesn’t even belong to have held prayer sessions and fundraisers for Shawn.

Dave’s co-workers at the Iron Bridge complex routinely give him gift cards for groceries or gas. His boss sent him home early every Friday so he could get on the road ahead of weekend traffic.

The support has allowed the family to focus on Shawn without worrying about the kids.

“I tell Shawn all the time,” his father said a week ago, “his kids are OK.”

Jessica said the kids have missed Shawn the last five months and joked he might be their kids’ favorite parent with all his art projects and made-up games.

“He is the most creative and patient, loving father ever,” she said.

With Shawn gone, Jessica said her sadness is matched only by her thankfulness he is no longer suffering.

“When he went, he went with a smile on his face,” Jessica said. “It makes you feel like he was ready.”

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