Neighborhood mourns girl killed by lightning Friend also struck remains in hospital

June 28, 1998|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

On the day after her granddaughter was struck to death by lightning, Carol Chisholm sat on the front porch of her pretty brick townhouse and tried to make sense of something that no one could understand.

"I always stayed close to my grandchildren because of this crazy world. I tried to shield them from everything. People would say maybe I was overprotective," Chisholm said. The tears welled up but did not spill over. "But some things, oh some things, you just can't do anything about."

Kassi Burton, 9, soon to be a fifth-grader at Rognel Heights Elementary, an honor-roll student, a swimmer, a member of the children's choir at Union Memorial United Methodist Church, the light of her grandmother's life, had died instantly.

Her friend, Stacey Gaskins, 8, was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was reported in good condition yesterday.

Inside Chisholm's dark cool house, where Kassi had lived for the past year, the child's parents, Kenneth Burton and Brenda Carter, mourned, inconsolable. Her little brother, 22-month-old Kai, toddled about, unaware.

"This little girl was one of the nicest, kindest, most spiritual people you'd ever want to meet," Chisholm said. "She was a loving, loving, happy little girl."

The storm came Friday at supper time, out of nowhere. The children were playing behind the houses on the 800 block of N. Woodington Road, pasting dime-store tattoos on each other, when the first rain hit the ground. A loud boomer scattered them for home.

Stacey Offer, 11, ran left to her front porch. Kassi and Stacey Gaskins ran right, around the corner and down North Woodington Road.

They were less than 20 yards from their front doors, crossing under the tallest tree on the block, when the fire came down from the sky.

Stacey Offer was scampering inside a block away just as she heard what everyone now calls "the awful crack." Her grandmother scolded her. Don't be out in a storm. You could get hit by lightning.

Chisholm ran down the stairs and onto the porch to call Kassi. She saw the lightning. She saw the girls fall. She never stopped moving.

Kassi was as still as a stone. She wasn't breathing. Her eyes were half open.

In her heart, Chisholm knew her angel was gone.

The doctors would tell Chisholm later that the lightning bolt, glancing off the tree, struck Kassi in the chest and passed through her body, out her toes. The child's heart stopped. They said she did not suffer.

Stacey Gaskins was breathing but unconscious. Neighbors were telling her to wake up, sweetie, wake up, as other neighbors worked frantically over Kassi, trying cardiopulmonary resuscitation, massaging her chest. "You hear about it, you see it, you read about it," Chisholm said, her words trailing off.

You never think lightning will strike the ones you love.

And the precautions? The children had been told to come in immediately at the first sign of a storm. Trees, electric poles, swimming pools, golf clubs, metal bleachers -- everyone knows these attract lightning.

It was just a fluke that Kassi and Stacey Gaskins were running past the tree at the very second that lightning struck.

Diarra Felton, 15, was waiting on his porch for his friend Eric Worthington when he saw the lightning strike. He ran to call 911.

The police dispatcher wanted to know if the little girls were breathing. He didn't think so. She told him to cover them, so he yanked blankets off the beds. By then, his neighbors were at the girls' sides. And he was too scared to leave the porch.

His mother, Regina Felton, recalled this in the noonday bright; Diarra was trying to sleep after walking the house, like a zombie, all night.

Chelby Worthington, a tax preparer, tried CPR. So did her father. It seemed like the ambulance took forever.

Everyone was on the street, trying to help. Edmondson Village in Southwest Baltimore is that kind of neighborhood.

North Woodington is a beautiful, leafy street of three-story brick townhouses with pitched slate roofs and wide front porches, a street out of the gentler past. And yesterday morning, as the breeze teased the heavy blue hydrangea blossoms, people sat on their porches and talked of their sadness.

Bad things don't happen on North Woodington Road. The neighborhood watch reclaimed the corners. The children are respectful. Teen-agers might roll their eyes now and then, but they don't talk back.

Neighbors are relieved Stacey Gaskins will be home from the hospital soon; her family was there with her yesterday.

Kassi, they say, had such pretty eyes, pretty hair. She was smart. They remember.

Her cousin, Kache Dowdy, 12, looked just like her. They sometimes passed for twins. Kache called Kassi "sister."

Stacey Offer wasn't related but she, too, called Kassi her cousin.

About a minute after Stacey Offer got home Friday night, the telephone rang. A neighbor said two girls had been hit by lightning. Her grandmother wouldn't let her leave the house.

They told her that Kassi was dead but she didn't believe it until she saw it on the television and read it in the newspaper.

"She didn't have no reason to die," Stacey Offer said and started to cry.

Two neighborhood boys came up to her yesterday as she sat on her aunt's porch, not 10 yards from where Kassi fell.

Is Kassi OK, they wanted to know.

Stacey Offer pointed at the tree without looking up.

"She got hit by lightning," Stacey said softly. Her tears told the rest.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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