For nine years, Amanda and Ross Debuty have analyzed every second of the worst few minutes of their lives.
"You always think, 'What if?'" said Ross Debuty, "For instance, I tried to get in twice to get to the children and I couldn't get past the smoke."
In the early morning hours of February 6, 2007, an electrical fire started in their Blount County home and the two smoke detectors never went off. Four of their five children slept upstairs.
"He [Ross] managed to kick in a dead-bolted front door. He was in his sock feet and skivvies," Amanda Debuty said, "He thought he had rocks in his socks but they were burns on his feet from the heat of the floor."
Their children, Mandolin, 14, Jerry, 12, Sinjin, 10, and Shelbea, 7, did not survive.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss them. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about them. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think, 'What would they be like? What would they look like?" Amanda said, "This year Shelbea would have been 16. She would have been driving."
The Debutys have spent years warning parents to have the right smoke detectors in their homes. But last year, when the state fire marshal launched a campaign, was the first time they heard about how closing your bedroom door can add life-saving minutes during an escape from a fire.
"I always sleep with the door open because I want to be able to hear the kids. So it was a matter of I didn't ever shut the bedroom door. I needed to be able to get up and get to whoever if they needed help," said Amanda.
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To see how a door can help add minutes during a fire, the Knoxville Fire Department built a simulation room.
"What we had was roughly an 8 x 8 x 8 burn cell," said DJ Corcoran with the Knoxville Police Department, "We put a sheetrock wall down the middle of that with a door in between."
With engines standing by, the firefighters burned the couch in the left room. One minute in, the couch was flaming but the room on the right, separated by a closed door, where a person would be sleeping still has breathable air and is 250 degrees cooler.
"A lot of times when the smoke alarms go off, the first thing a person does is sits up in bed and breathe in, and gasps 'Oh my gosh! What's happening?' They breathe in all these toxic fumes and that's enough to disorient," Corcoran said.
Five minutes into the demonstration, the room ignites. A firefighter measured the temperature and found it was 1500 degrees in the room where the fire started and 100 degrees in the room where the door was closed.
"You want to keep your door shut and keep a wall, a door something in between you and the fire that's going to buy you that extra time to be able to get out safely," Corcoran said.
It's something many of us never think about until it happens to you.
"If you think about adding three minutes, five minutes, that's a really long time when you're talking about survival," Amanda said.
"Now it's going to be incorporated into what I do every day," she said.
Raymond Debuty, their only child to survive the fire, is 12 now. The family has also adopted a 3-year-old little girl.
The family makes it a priority to honor their late children by keeping their memory alive.
The State Fire Marshall's Office recommends:
- Close the bedroom door when sleeping, if possible.
- Close doors behind you when escaping a room/building that's on fire.
- If you are unable to escape a building that is on fire, close all doors between you and the fire. Use towels or sheets to seal the door cracks and cover air vents. Call the fire department to report your exact location.
- Keep fire doors closed. These specialized doors are used to compartmentalize a building and prevent the spread of smoke and flames. Never wedge, disable, or prop open fire doors in apartments or other buildings.
The Fire Marshal also added that a working smoke alarm and fire escape plan are imperative. The Debuty family encourages everyone to purchase a "photoelectric" smoke alarm over an ionic smoke alarm.