Carolinian – Campus News
Issue: 3/4/02

Leap of Faith
By Stephen Cook and John Ayers

Sarah Bolton, Virginia Frazell and Raechel Kowalski woke to an inferno in the early morning hours of Feb. 15.

Flames were already spreading through the Campus Walk apartments where the three UNCG students shared a suite when Frazell woke abruptly around 2:30 a.m.

“I was shaken awake by my roommate,” said Frazell, senior. “She had to literally shake me to get me up. We had time to go in the living room. The first thing I noticed was that the entire balcony was a flame of red.”

“I remember seeing the blinds catch on fire and that caught the hanging plant on fire. Then the blinds fell,” said Bolton. “The whole corner was just one big blob of fire.”

The trio headed for the door leading to the breezeway as their primary escape route. Frazell opened the door, revealing the smoldering staircase and letting thick smoke into the apartment.

“I touched the handle and it wasn’t hot, so I thought we could get out,” said Kowalski.

“We went to the door; I opened it, slammed it shut and said ‘We’re not going out there’,” said Frazell.

“The smoke was thick and I remember seeing some red. The flames were wrapping around from the balcony along the breezeway to where the door was,” said Bolton.

The three girls retreated to Virginia’s room and shut the door behind them. Bolton called 911 on her cell phone while Frazell jammed a towel over the crack of the door and Kowalski punched out the screen of Virginia’s window.

“I told [Bolton and Kowalski] we were jumping. It was not a question,” said Frazell.

A number of patrons at Hugo’s, a nearby bar, were hanging out inside when they realized the neighboring Campus Walk building was on fire. Two patrons, Ronnie Buchanan and Mike Kirnodle, rushed to the scene and attempted to alert those inside of the fire.

When they saw Kowalski, Bolton, and Frazell through the open third story window Buchanan and Kirnodle said they urged the girls to jump. They instructed the girls to climb out and hang down as far as they could before letting go of the window ledge.

Buchanan and Kirnodle tried to catch the girls as they dropped from their open window. Frazell’s feet caught on a small ledge on the side of the building, and she missed those who tried to catch her below.

“When she let go, she slid two stories and her feet caught the bricks sticking out,” said Donna Frazell, Virginia’s mother. “She flipped over the person trying to catch her and broke her collarbone, a rib, her foot, and sprained her other foot.”

“I was lying there and people kept saying, ‘Get up!'” said Frazell. “But I said, ‘No, I’m not moving. This hurts.”

Bolton and Kowalski came through with only minimal scrapes and bruises on their arms.

“If it was not for [Buchanan and Kirnodle] we wouldn’t have jumped,” said Kowalski.

“We were definitely hesitating and they had to coax us out,” said Bolton. “People have said that we are so brave and they don’t know if they could have done it. I just tell them that they would have done the same thing.”

Frazell said she and her roommates kept two cats in their room.

“One of them used to sleep with me,” said Frazell. “Before I jumped I heard the kitten scratching the door.”

“Just the silence,” said Frazell when asked what she remembered about the fire. “It was very quiet. The only thing I heard was Raechel and Sarah talking.”

“I kept screaming, ‘Oh my God,'” said Kowalski. “I don’t think you have time to be scared. Your survival instinct kicks in and it’s just, ‘Find a way out. Find a way out’.”

Once out of the building the girls could see what they had just escaped.

“I was in just complete disbelief to see so much fire. The building was on fire, and there was a whole line of fire surrounding the building because the bushes were burning too,” said Kowalski.

Only after they escaped the fire did the girls begin to realize what was happening, said Bolton.

“We were crying. I was trying to give Raechel support because her cats were still inside,” said Bolton. “We were thinking, ‘That’s everything we have. That’s everything we own in there.'”

“I didn’t care about my belongings. I just wanted my cats,” said Kowalski.

Frazell said memories of the fire won’t go away.

“Now, the rustling of wind bothers me,” said Frazell. “I keep reaching for things and I realize I can’t have them because I realize they’re gone.”

But Frazell said she had guidance through the ordeal.

“There were definitely angels there,” said Frazell. “The things I received back were my cross, guardian angel, a ring my grandmother gave me and my Bible. They were all of significant Christian value to me.”

“I do not hate her at all,” said Frazell of Janet Louise Danahey, the woman charged with setting the Campus Walk fire. “I feel sorry for her that she has hurt so many people and changed so many lives.”

Frazell said she found it difficult to deal with the steady stream of gifts from friends and strangers.

“It’s so easy just to give things,” said Frazell. “It’s much harder to receive.”

The fire did effect one good change, said Frazell.

“I’ve almost completely quit smoking now.”