By Sarah Nagem
When 11-year-old Kaliyah Harrington woke up to smoke filling her family’s Scotland County home, her mind immediately turned to the fire safety tips she learned at school.
“They taught us how to cover your face up when there’s smoke so you don’t inhale too much smoke,” Kaliyah said. “And go low when there’s smoke, because smoke goes up.”
In the early-morning hours of Oct. 29, as her parents and four siblings slept, Kaliyah yanked the bandana she was wearing on her hair over her nose and mouth and crawled out of her room. That’s when she realized the fire was in the kitchen.
“I saw flames everywhere,” Kaliyah said. “I just started screaming, ‘The house is on fire!’”
Kaliyah, a sixth grader at Carver Middle School in Laurel Hill, is being hailed as a hero for her quick thinking and bravery in the moments that followed.
“Most kids’ instincts would have probably been to run out of the house,” said her mother, Precious McNeil, who works as a local 911 operator. “But no, she was adamant about getting everybody out of the house.”
After she saw the flames, Kaliyah made her way to her parents’ room, where her 9-month-old brother was also sleeping. When McNeill struggled to wake up, Kaliyah reached up from the floor and yanked her foot off the bed to get her attention.
“I felt like I was being suffocated,” said McNeil, describing the smoke.
Next, Kaliyah crawled to the living room, where she remembered that her three other siblings had crashed the night before. She took 5-year-old Grace and 2-year-old Demarco out the front door, thinking year-old Chloe was right behind her.
McNeil, who helped her husband and baby get out, did a head count outside. One child was missing.
“I ran back in there to grab Chloe,” Kaliyah said. “I wasn’t scared. I was just trying to save her, get her out of the house.”
With everyone safe and accounted for, Kaliyah ran to a nearby home to call 911. But the residents there are elderly and wear hearing aids, Kaliyah said, and they didn’t answer.
So the family, all of them barefoot and in their night clothes, piled into their car and drove to a cousin’s house and called first responders.
The house on McKinnon Drive, where the family had lived for four years, was destroyed by the fire. They lost everything – clothes, cellphones, Kahliyah’s sneaker collection. She’s a big fan of shoes, especially Jordans.
”I do miss it,” Kaliyah said, “but it’s not as good as having my family.”
An online fundraiser has garnered almost $2,000 for the family. To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, go online to http://bitly.ws/wZ3P.
Kaliyah has received much praise in the weeks after the fire. She was recognized earlier this month by the Scotland County Board of Commissioners and Laurinburg officials, including the police chief and fire chief.
Her biggest supporters are her parents and siblings. McNeil said Chloe now calls Kaliyah “her fire hero.”
As for the fire safety training? Kaliyah said she learned the skills in third grade, and they’ve stuck with her. That comes as no surprise to her mother, who said Kaliyah earns good grades and embraces the responsibilities that come with being the oldest sibling.
“She’s going to make sure she goes to school,” McNeil said. “She’s going to make sure her work is done.”
Kaliyah also plays soccer and softball with the parks and recreation league, McNeil said, and she is active in the youth council of the Scotland County NAACP.
The family plans to spend Thanksgiving with McNeil’s mother, as they always do.
This year, through tragedy and heartbreak, Kaliyah said she has a lot to be thankful for.
“We all could have died,” she said, “because people die in house fires all the time.”
Kaliyah takes the praise she has received in stride.
“I don’t think I did anything that special,” she said. “I just saved my family.”
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