- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

TIMMONSVILLE, S.C. (AP) - Like most high school freshmen, 15-year-old Kristen Tilton began planning her spring break in December.

She started talking to her parents about renting a house in Garden City so she and her friend, Lexi Walker, could enjoy a long weekend at the beach. She started shopping and picking out clothes to take as soon as spring clothes were in the stores in February.

She couldn’t wait for all of the fun that surely awaited her and her family, and when April 17 rolled around, she was packed and ready to go.

Little did she know within three days, everything would change - so much so that today she doesn’t think she ever wants to go back to the beach.

“Everybody had gotten in the bed and everything that night,” Kristen said. “The next thing I remember is my mom coming in our room and waking us all up. It was me, Lexi, my little brother Joe-Joe and my little cousin Allie. She was telling us all to get up and get out of the house, that the house was on fire. At first I didn’t think it was real. I thought I was having a bad dream.”

It was around 3 a.m., and Kristen said once she realized that she wasn’t dreaming, she immediately jumped up and took off down the stairs to get out.

“We’d only been at the house a couple of days, so nobody knew their way around that good, especially in the middle of the night,” she said. “I just went toward the stairs. I held my breath, closed my eyes and ran down. I guess it was just adrenaline that kicked in. It happened so fast, it wasn’t like we really had any time to think.”

But most people would say Kristen doesn’t give herself enough credit. She was thinking that night.

When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she realized she was the only person who’d taken the stairs and made it outside. Hearing screams, she looked up to see the rest of her family stranded on the balcony, with fire closing in behind them.

“I was screaming for help, but there was nobody coming out at first,” Kristen said. “The neighbors thought it was spring break people partying. I saw my dad on the top balcony, then I saw Ally, Joe-Joe and Lexie on the balcony. They didn’t have anywhere they could go. So I told them they were gonna have to jump and I would catch them - well you know, try to catch them to break their fall.”

Lexi jumped first, knocking herself and Kristen to the ground. But 8-year-old “Little Joey” Lamb and 7-year-old Allie Moore were not as easily convinced.

Allie didn’t want to jump at all,” Kristen said. “She kept crying and saying she wanted to go back in and get her blanket. I just kept talking to her and telling her, ‘Come on, Allie, you can do this. I’ll catch you.’ Finally she did, and Joe-Joe did, too. With each one, we fell down as I caught them, but I still got them.”

Meanwhile, Kristen’s stepfather, Joey Lamb - whom she considered a natural father - had made his jump and had been moved away from the house by neighbors, who finally had realized what was happening and emerged from their homes to help. Kristen’s mother, Melissa Moore Lamb, was nowhere to be found.

“I knew she hadn’t come out, but I just kept screaming for her and asking where she was. I wanted to go back in to try to get her. Of course, they wouldn’t let me, and nobody would tell me anything. Deep down, I already knew. I knew she was gone,” Kristen said, tearing up, her voice trailing off. “I already knew.”

By that time, the scene was covered in firefighters and emergency workers. Kristen spotted her dad lying on the ground, being tended to by neighbors and emergency workers.

“I went over to my dad and I told him that I loved him,” Kristen said. “He tried to talk. He tried to say something to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.”

Kristen suffered severe burns to the bottom of her feet and her right hand. Lexi, Little Joey and Allie all suffered smoke inhalation but no other serious injuries. Kristen and her brother were taken to one hospital, but their dad was taken to another.

“The whole time in the ambulance, I was just trying to get Joe-Joe to calm down, because he was so upset, he could barely breathe or talk,” Kristen said.

“Then when we got to the hospital, they wouldn’t tell me what was going on with Joe-Joe or where my dad was,” Kristen said. “We were there by ourselves for a long time, waiting on my grandparents and family because they had to drive from here.”

Eventually, Kristen and her brother were told their 38-year-old mother had not made it out of the fire. Their 46-year-old father died in the hospital the next day as a result of injuries he suffered in the jump from the house.

It’s been a month since the fire. Kristen and her brother now live with their grandparents, across the street from the home they shared with their parents.

Kristen has spent the past few weeks in and out of doctor’s appointments. She was recently released from her wheelchair and is physically doing much better. She’s homeschooling now and plans to return to East Clarendon High School as a sophomore.

But the mental and emotional scars are a bit deeper.

“For a little while, I blamed myself, because I’m the teenager,” Kristen said. “I was the one who wanted to go to spring break. If it hadn’t been for that, we probably wouldn’t have been down there. It’s just hard to think about.”

Both Kristen and Allie have regular nightmares about the fire. Kristen said she’s not sure if little Joey does. He doesn’t talk much about what happened. The entire family is still struggling to come to terms with it.

“It’s been a living nightmare,” said Linda Moore, Kristen’s grandmother. “You just can’t ever imagine something like this happening. I mean, there just aren’t words. .”

But despite the loss of their daughter and the grief they’re going through, Linda Moore said she and her husband, Kenneth, and the rest of the family are determined to make life as normal as possible for Kristen and Little Joey.

After all, if it weren’t for Kristen, there’s a good chance the fire would have claimed more lives.

“I don’t think we’d have the other three children if it weren’t for Kristen,” said Bree Moore, Kristen’s aunt and Allie’s mom. “She’s a miracle. She’s the reason all the children are still here.

“I don’t think there are words for what this family has been through. We’ve been through so many emotions. You feel relief because the kids are OK, but at the same time, we’re mourning the loss of two people - two people who were half of our family,” Bree Moore said, fighting back tears.

“But we will be forever grateful to her. I don’t think those kids would have jumped for anyone else. Our daughter, little Joey - they’re still with us because of Kristen. I don’t know many adults that could have taken action so quickly and thought in that situation. She’s our hero.”

Kristen disagrees. She said her mother is the one who got everybody up and out of the house.

“She got us up, and I feel like I just did what anybody else would do it that situation,” Kristen said.

“I don’t consider myself a hero or anything like that. I think my mom is the real hero. I still feel her with me all the time. When I go to make decisions, I can still hear her voice. My mom was the most loving person. She always thought about others and put them before herself. And she always thought about me and Joe-Joe first. Our dad was the same way. They were all about family.”

___

Information from: Morning News, https://www.scnow.com

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