The birthday celebration for two-year-old Allison Stull of Knoxville was nothing like the way her family wanted it to be.
Instead of a party at home with friends and family, Allison and her mom, Kaylynn Cole, spent Wednesday at a small park near the hotel where they are currently staying in Nashville. They were thankful to be celebrating her birthday at all.
Only two days before, Allison her two siblings, and her 11-year-old aunt had been trapped in a house fire that nearly stripped them of everything they had, including each other.
“Oh, my sweet girl… Today is your 2nd birthday. I am SO sorry this is our life on your birthday,” Cole posted on Facebook. “I know you can tell there is already a difference. I know you know something is wrong. But my baby, I promise mommy and daddy will always be here for you. Though you don’t understand, you will always have an angel overhead watching you.”
Allison’s older sister, three-year-old Delilah Stull, died a few hours after she was rushed from the burning house to a nearby hospital. The other kids, 11-year-old Arayah Carney and ten-month-old Grayson Stull, were transported from Knoxville to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville in critical condition.
As of Thursday, only Grayson remained in the ICU, according to their mother.
“If my boy ever makes it home, he may never talk, walk or breathe on his own again,” said Cole. “And I refuse to let my baby live that life. I’m praying for a miracle. Hoping my little boy pulls through and is able to walk talk and breathe all on his own again. I love my boy. So very much. Just as I love all my kids. This is killing me knowing there is a chance I will lose my baby.”
Although the family was still hoping for a miracle, Cole posted the following message late Thursday: “My boy…my sweet boy. Ten months old … Smart, sweet, loving, and all above that you can imagine in a perfect child. I made a hard decision today … me and your daddy both. We will turn your life support off on Saturday. They will keep you stable until mommy and daddy can come back to you. And I promise son, we will bring you home … I love you so much, Grayson Matthew.”
Cole said Arayah has improved enough to be moved out of the ICU but remains hospitalized.
The family’s three dogs were also tragically killed in the fire. Their names were Diamond, Donut and Dozer. “My three doggies are with my baby girl,” said Cole on social media.
Delilah’s parents have each published heartbreaking memorials to their child on Facebook.
“My little girl… Zach Bryan was her favorite music artist,” wrote Cole. “Atlanta Braves was her favorite baseball team. She watched baseball every night with her daddy. The whole game. She listened to Zach Bryan every day with her daddy.”
Delilah’s father, Matthew Stull, also shared a message to his daughter: “Delilah baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to save you. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there when you needed me the most. I told you I’d never let anything get you, and I lied. Baby, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t better for you. I should’ve tried harder, I should’ve been better. I love you, sweet mama. I love you moon and back. I just want my best friend back, man.”
On Wednesday, as Allison played in the park, her mother saw something that she took as a sign: a cardinal flew by and alighted on the nearby swings, which had been Delilah’s favorite playground attraction.
“As soon as [Allison] took off running, this baby came flying right by me … then went over to Delilah’s favorite things — the swings,” Cole said of a cardinal she captured a photo of. “I have all faith this was my baby saying that she was there. My mom heart hurts so bad.”
As horrible as the tragedy has been, it could have been even worse.
When flames erupted in their house at 1620 Lenland Avenue around 2 p.m. Monday, the children were trapped downstairs, and a frenzied rescue effort ensued as both neighbors and first responders came to their aid.
One neighbor, Becky Webb, said that she heard the family calling for help and rushed over to see if there was anything she could do.
“My neighbor ran out her front door screaming for help getting her babies out of the house because it was on fire,” said Webb. “I threw everything I had in my arms and ran to her… The four [kids] were trapped downstairs where the fire had started.”
Webb said that rescuers were able to pull Allison through a window. The child appeared to be physically okay, and Webb was hopeful the other kids would be safe, too.
“Another neighbor came busting through a wooden fence to try to get down to help, but the smoke was too thick for anyone to see or breathe,” Webb continued. “Our big brave girl, Arayah, tried her hardest to save the other two littles before she, too, was pulled through the busted window and almost collapsed in my arms as she told me in defeat she couldn’t get to them.”
According to Webb, Delilah was apparently asleep before the fire started and didn’t wake up.
“All of the emergency responders were heartbroken,” Webb said. “She was the most bright and beautiful little girl you would ever meet, and we were all blessed to have gotten to spend the little time we did with her.”
Calling the first responders who showed up to fight the fire “heartbroken” may be something of an understatement.
The men and women of the Knoxville Fire Department and the medics who work from the ambulances of American Medical Response (AMR) spend their entire professional lives trying to save lives, and they usually succeed.
Fatalities caused by fires aren’t common in Knoxville. In fact, the girl who died Monday was only the 13th person to be killed by a fire in the city limits since 2018, according to KFD Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks.
On Monday, the first KFD units reached the scene within one minute of the alarm and found themselves confronted with a nightmare scenario.
“They were confronted with several issues,” Wilbanks explained. “Number one, they had an extremely large fire with known people trapped in the building. They were told people were trapped in the building as they were pulling up. They were also the first truck there, so they were alone for a couple of minutes. They had to begin pulling hose lines and making their way to the structure and then into the structure.”
Their first priority, of course, was to save the two children who were still threatened by the smoke and flames.
“They were trapped inside the building due to the heavy fire blocking their exit from the structure,” he said. “They could not leave the back room in which they were in. Two of our firefighters entered the structure while a crew was working on extinguishing the fire. They were able to make their way to the back room and hand the children out the window. There was a firefighter on the exterior that the children were handed to and they were carried out to the ambulance.”
Wilbanks said the firefighters didn’t actually witness the neighbors rescuing some of the children, but that scenario was consistent with what they saw.
“I cannot confirm that anyone assisted in rescuing the other two children,” he said. “However, they were out of the building the moment we arrived. It would be my assumption that someone did have to assist them out.”
As for the house, Wilbanks said it’s a total loss.
While the family reported losing three dogs in the fire, Wilbanks confirmed Thursday that four canines were killed. It wasn’t immediately clear why the fourth dog was there or to whom it belonged.
Investigators from the fire department are still trying to determine the fire’s origin, he said.
The American Red Cross is helping support the family for now, but community members have been working to gather everyday items they need to survive.
A South Knoxville coffee shop, CommonPlace, is accepting non-monetary donations for the family. Anyone who has items they would like to donate is encouraged to drop them off at CommonPlace located at 6000 Chapman Highway.
According to Amber Wright, a family friend who organized a GoFundMe on their behalf, the family is in urgent need of everything from clothes and diapers to housewares and pillows.
Anyone who would like to make a monetary donation to the family can do so here.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify that Allison’s last name is Stull and Arayah Carney is her aunt. Hard Knox Wire received permission from Matthew Stull to report updates posted by family on social media.
J.J. Stambaugh contributed to this report.
Megan Sadler and J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on June 10, 2022.