Family's loss inspires them to lead life-saving effort
CHAMPAIGN — Christian Sheehan turned 23 just two days before he died in a house fire in Champaign a year ago.
On Saturday, his family and many of their friends will mark what would have been his 24th birthday by trying to give others a life-saving present: smoke alarms.
A "smoke alarm blitz" is scheduled from about 9 to noon in the neighborhood where he and another young woman died.
A resident of 1802 Cypress Drive, C, Mr. Sheehan died March 26, 2016, after being overcome by smoke in an early-morning fire at the rental home. Sara Shuler, 26, of Champaign, a guest of another resident, also died as a result of the fire.
Although the cause of the fire at the house, which was razed in late February, was never determined, Champaign fire investigators learned there were no working smoke detectors in the single-story house.
Firefighters were called to the house at the corner of Cypress Drive and Mattis Avenue at 4:16 a.m. They found heavy smoke and fire and one of the occupants outside.
A fire investigator's final report obtained by The News-Gazette said that man outside, whose name was redacted, had only recently moved in.
He went to bed about 2:30 a.m. and was awakened by someone screaming "hey" and "fire."
He crawled out of the smoke-filled house, banged on a neighbor's door, yelled outside Mr. Sheehan's bedroom window and honked his car horn to try to wake those inside.
The neighbor, hearing the commotion, called 911 and tried to enter the house but couldn't see in front of him because of the smoke. The neighbor reported someone else yanked him back out.
Firefighters pulled Mr. Sheehan and Ms. Shuler from the house. Mr. Sheehan was pronounced dead within an hour. Ms. Shuler lived about 13 hours before passing.
The report said another resident of the house who had spent the night at his girlfriend's home told fire investigators "there were no working smoke alarms in the house."
"He stated that there had been one still in the package, on the north wall, hanging from a hook, but he had not seen it in a while. He stated he did recall a carbon monoxide detector in the house near the washer/dryer but does not know if it worked," the investigative report said.
That issue is the subject of ongoing litigation by the parents of Mr. Sheehan and Ms. Shuler against the landlord, Anthony Bamert, a Champaign-based real-estate appraiser. Wrongful death suits were filed in late September and November, respectively, against Bamert on behalf of Robert and Joy Sheehan and Monica and Dwain Shuler.
It's also the reason for Saturday's effort. Although they declined to be interviewed for this story, the Sheehans have channeled their grief into something positive by helping with education efforts about the critical importance of working smoke detectors.
On Feb. 18, the couple and two of their three daughters took part in knocking on doors and helping to install detectors for neighbors of Laura Wills, 53, who died in a house fire that started in her garage at 503 Swigart St., on Feb. 10. Firefighters could not even find a detector in her home.
"We're trying to find some good in bad," Joy Sheehan said that day. "I can't believe people don't have smoke alarms. Your sense of smell shuts down when you sleep."
She described the Champaign Fire Department as a "second family" to them in the wake of their tragedy.
Deputy Fire Marshal Janet Maupin said the Sheehans have enlisted about 65 volunteers to help in Saturday's effort, including getting Rosati's Pizza and Einstein Bros. Bagels to donate food for the volunteers.
They'll convene at 8:30 a.m. at the Free Methodist Church, 1913 S. Mattis Ave., for a bit of training and coordination before heading out in three-member teams.
Maupin explained that each team will have a documenter to handle paperwork, including the smoke alarm manuals; an installer to put a smoke detector in each sleeping room and one combination smoke/carbon monoxide alarm in each common area; and an educator to talk with families about having an escape plan in the event of fire.
Fire officials have targeted about 225 homes in that area. Informational hangers were put on doors over the weekend to let residents know about the Saturday blitz.
"I'm hoping if we get in half of those homes ... and if we put of an average of four alarms in each, that would be a lot," Maupin said.
Anyone in that area who wants a free smoke detector and isn't available Saturday is asked to call the fire department at 217-403-7200 to schedule an installation.