Girl seeking mother dies in fire Love and loyalty cost her her life

August 21, 1993|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff writer Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Robin Russell would follow her mother just about anywhere. Yesterday morning, that love and loyalty cost the 15-year-old her life.

After a fire broke out in her family's home in Edgewater, Robin dashed from safety back into the burning living room -- the last place she had seen her mother.

And that's where firefighters found the girl after they doused the flames. Robin, who was mildly retarded, did not know that Mary Russell had already escaped and was waiting for her outside with her other daughter, Rachel.

"Robin and Rachel and myself were all very close," Mrs. Russell said, her hand shaking as she lighted a cigarette. "I don't care where I went, Robin always went with me. She even followed me to the bathroom and used to talk to me when I took a bath."

Seven people, including Robin and Rachel, 11, were in the two-story, tin-roof house in the first block of Chipouras Road when the fire broke out shortly before 3 a.m.

Robert Swafford Jr., Robin's uncle, said he was asleep in the living room when he woke up and saw that the couch was on fire. Mrs. Russell, her sister, Margaret Akers, 39, Rachel Russell and a family friend, Frederick Wright, 49, were also asleep in the room.

"They [Margaret and Mary] were pouring their soda on it, but it didn't help," Mr. Swafford said. "I ran into the kitchen, and by the time I got a pot and filled it up with water and went back into the living room, the fire was on the walls."

Mr. Swafford said he ran upstairs and grabbed his son, Robert Swafford III, 14, and Robin out of their beds and --ed down the stairs.

Robin was shaking "all over," he said, and at the landing, she turned and saw the flames.

"She thought her mother was in there," he said. "She broke away from me and ran into the room."

By daylight yesterday, all that was left of the tiny house on the

gravel road was a charred shell. Mrs. Russell, 36, and her sister sat on the floor of the vacant house next door and wept.

Ms. Akers explained how the fire started: She was sleeping on the couch when two of the family's dogs began fighting. She didn't want to turn on the lights and wake everyone so she leaned down and flicked her lighter on to see what was causing the commotion.

"It was apparently too close to the skirt of the couch, and a little flame or flicker hit it and it went up," she said. "By the time we got back with the water, the couch was already up in flames."

Mrs. Russell said her daughter loved attending services and socializing with the youth group at the Harvest Church of God in Edgewater. She also loved her classes at the Central Special Education School in Edgewater.

"Robin got along with the children there," she said. "School was also a special place for her. At both places she was able to help those who needed more help then herself. She would never hurt anyone. It would break her heart."

The pastor of Harvest church, the Rev. Robert B. Heap Jr., said that each time Robin attended services, she would ask the parishioners to pray for her mother.

"You can see how powerful that love was to make her do what she did," he said. "You can understand that instinct."

Robin never missed a Sunday service and would attend most services during the week. She also was a member of the youth group.

"Robin won an award for having the best attendance of the group," he said. "She did not have a car, but she always made sure there was someone to pick her up."

He said Robin had a "special way," with small children.

"On Wednesday, there she was in church, in one of the front rows, holding a small child, the child was so happy," Mr. Heap said.

Sometimes children could be mean to Robin, Mr. Heap said. "But it was not like that in church," he said. "All the kids there treated her as an equal."

Robin's family does not have much money, Mr. Heap said, and described her mother and uncle as being proud, sometimes too proud to ask for help. When they asked for help, he said, they really needed it. Because of a back injury, Mr. Swafford cannot work.

Annette Mooney of the Red Cross said the family will be put in a hotel for the weekend, and volunteers will help them find a new home and furnishing.

"But we were just getting on our feet," Mr. Swafford, who gets Social Security disability payments, said. "Now we get knocked down again. We have to start over from nothing again."

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