Ten years later, mother still grieves children lost in Lima fire

January 9, 2013

LIMA — Tre’yvon Terry has a wrestling meet tonight. A Bath eighth-grader, Trey, 13, is dedicating his match to his brother, Thomas.

Their mother is bracing herself for an emotional struggle. Tonight is the 10th anniversary of the night Thomas Terry, 5, and the boys’ little sister, Ny’Kahla Terry, 2, died in a house fire on Lima's East Elm Street. A third child, 13-year-old family friend Crystal Bryan, also perished.

“Wrestling was little Thomas’s thing,” Natalia Baraby said. “We’ll see how that goes. I try not to do any wrestling things on that day because it’s just hard.”

During an interview Tuesday, Baraby, 33, revisited the dreadful night of Jan. 9, 2003.

The family had developed a Thursday night ritual: dinner at McDonald’s, then home with a rented wrestling video. Thomas, a kindergartner, had joined a youth wrestling program and was fascinated with every aspect of the sport.

A horrendous day at work complicated this particular Thursday night. Baraby was a dock coordinator for Schneider National at a warehouse for Procter and Gamble. She said she loved the job — she planned to make a career of it, in fact — but that particular day was “the day nothing goes right,” she said, adding, “I was just mad.”

Returning to 597 1/2 E. Elm St., a rented home she shared with roommate Shana Whitacre, Baraby lay down on a sofa in the living room while the children went upstairs to watch the videos, all but Thomas, who lay down beside his mother.

“He must have woke up and went upstairs, but I was asleep,” she said. “I don’t know how Trey made it downstairs, but he woke me up.”

All at once, the house was full of flames, she said. The stairway was on fire. Her clothes were on fire.

Firefighters determined a flashover occurred, meaning a buildup of heat caused an instantaneous combustion. A report in The Lima News quoted assistant fire chief Richard Robinson saying an electrical fire probably smoldered for several hours above a drop ceiling in the living room.

“Trey and I ran,” Baraby said. Whitacre raced downstairs. The three children upstairs did not come down with her.

“I remember screaming at Shana, saying, ‘Where are the kids?’ She said, ‘They’re right behind me.’ But they weren’t.”

Baraby said she doesn’t blame Whitacre for anything.

“You don’t know what you’ll do in a situation,” she said. “I could sit there and say, ‘I’ll do this, this and this.’ And you know what? That night, I did not know what to do. It happened so fast.”

The most agonizing, lasting image was the sight of three small body bags being carried from the burned building. The badly burned bodies required a closed-coffin funeral.

“They gave me the opportunity to look,” Baraby said. “But I have a wonderful mom who told me, ‘If you look, you’ll never remember them the same.’”

Baraby took four months of leave before returning to work. But her grief hadn’t subsided much by then.

“Nothing was the same anymore,” she said. “I mean, they were the same, I just wasn’t. I still haven’t found normal.”

She left the job she loved. There were periods of uncontrolled crying, alcohol abuse, putting on a false smile and getting through the day.

Years of grief counseling and bouts of depression have passed. Baraby credits loving family and friends for helping her go on. She gives special credit to Barb Gremling, a hospice nurse and regular at Shawnee Manor nursing home, where Baraby now works as an administrative assistant.

Still, it’s a challenge some days just to get out of pajamas and go to work, she said.

Is she mad at God?

“We’re still on bad terms,” she said. “I mean, we’re OK, but we hit bad terms every once in a while. I’ve finally quit questioning. I didn’t get an answer, not one that’s good enough for me, anyway. My mom has a good relationship with God, so I hope it makes up for me not having a good relationship.”

Trey has a good foundation of faith, too. Baraby worries about Trey growing up normal in such a sorrowful circumstance.

“Trey’s a trooper,” she said. “He handles it a lot better than me. He must think his mom’s a basket case. And he has his days. I don’t want to say even days; he has his moments. But he’s my hero.”

Tonight, they hope to celebrate a victory and a milepost, if celebration is the right word for that. It will be bittersweet.

“I don’t know how I feel about them being gone 10 years. It doesn’t seem that long ago,” Baraby said. “That night is still like yesterday.”