In a lawsuit filed in late 2009, the families alleged International Business College and The Willows of Coventry neglected to provide reasonably safe housing for the students.
They also alleged the defendants failed to provide operational smoke detectors in every bedroom and in the main living area, as well as functioning and safe electrical outlets, and an evacuation plan. They also claimed the defendants failed to rehearse an evacuation plan or engage in evacuation training, offer student housing that meets applicable fire and building codes and provide a fire-suppression system.
Initially, Dial Equities, parent company of The Willows of Coventry apartment complex on the west edge of Fort Wayne, disputed the claim, as did Bradford Schools Inc., the parent company of International Business College.
The case was dismissed in June 2011 after an undisclosed settlement was reached.
– Julie Crothers, The Journal Gazette
WINAMAC — Rhonda Berger couldn’t sleep.
Five months before, her 19-year-old daughter went off to college. Now, she found her mind racing hours after deciding to take her daughter off life support.
She had lost her daughter, and that day, it seemed she had lost everything.
But Rhonda didn’t think about that, not all night, at least. Instead, she thought of what others had gained. She knew someone, somewhere, was getting a phone call they’d been waiting years for.
She wondered what they needed: A kidney? A liver? Something else?
She imagined people scurrying to get bags packed. What’s their house like right now?
This is a story about finding comfort in unspeakable tragedy, about three families reconciling the death of their children in the life of others.
Rhonda’s daughter, Jennifer Spurgeon, packed her favorite sweatshirts and T-shirts, some with her nickname “Biffer” printed across them. She left Winamac, about 80 miles west of Fort Wayne, for her first year of school at International Business College.
An animal lover, Jennifer had decided years before that she wanted to become an animal caretaker and wanted to study in Fort Wayne.
She phoned home often.
She called with a new cat for her mom to adopt.
She called to remind her mom that she loved her.
But when Jennifer called early the morning of Jan. 23, 2009, she sounded panicked.
Her call came from a bathroom in The Willows of Coventry, where Jennifer and her roommates, Renae Patton, 18, and Lara Punches, 19, had taken refuge from the smoke that filled their second-story apartment.
A fire that began in the apartment below spread up the stairwell, trapping the women inside.
For the next 36 minutes, Rhonda Berger exchanged her last words with her daughter, listening to her struggle and, finally, silence. Still, she remained on the phone.
“I knew by the length of time on the phone with her – from the time there was little conversation to just moaning with every breath, to nothing, to the time of rescue – I knew down in my heart that it was probably too late,” Rhonda said.
Firefighters pulled the three women from the building and transported them to a hospital.
As she drove the rural roads to Fort Wayne, Rhonda phoned the hospital repeatedly.
After some confused conversations with hospital staff, she found her daughter in a coma, her lungs and heart destroyed by the smoke she had inhaled.
“I told the nurse at that point that if worse comes to worse, you need to know she’s a donor,” Rhonda said.
Doctors worked for nearly 24 hours. They lowered Jennifer’s body temperature. They checked for brain activity. Nurses wiped soot from her nose. They combed through her hair.
“I knew if she did survive and she was going to be a vegetable, that’s not what she’d want, so what were we going to be faced with?” Rhonda said.
Martha and Paul Punches’ drive from their home in Defiance, Ohio, to their daughter’s new school should have taken about an hour and 15 minutes.
That day, it took just 55.
Their daughter, Lara, had called about an hour before, explaining that there was a fire in the apartment and she and her roommates had taken refuge in the bathroom.
“She started coughing and said, ‘Mom, I can’t breathe, there’s too much smoke,’ ” Martha Punches said. Lara coughed a few more times before the line went silent. She was gone.
Finally, they arrived at the hospital.
Although her face was swollen and her clothes covered in ashes, Lara looked peaceful, normal, even.
It was as if at any moment she might jump out of bed, grab her glasses and ask her parents to take her to breakfast, Martha said.
They later learned that Lara had suffered significant brain damage, so much so that her brain was fighting against her organs, trying to keep her alive. The doctor stopped by and Martha asked if her daughter would ever recover.
He said no.
“And that’s when we knew we had to let her go,” Martha said.
From Ottawa, Ohio, Louann and Terry Patton rushed more than an hour toward the hospital, unsure what the next few hours might hold.
Their daughter, Renae, had called 911 early that morning – minutes after the women woke up in their apartment and discovered the smoke.
A receptionist from the college phoned Louann, telling her there had been a fire and everyone had been evacuated. She said Renae had been taken to the hospital but had no other information.
“At that point, I thought ‘OK, it’s just as a precautionary measure,’ ” she said.
But when the couple arrived, they found their daughter unconscious. A ventilator whirred near her hospital bed and a chaplain stood by.
They knew, Louann said.
Eventually, doctors broke the news. They didn’t expect any of the women would survive.
Jennifer Spurgeon was buried in the McKinley Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Winamac on Jan. 20, 2009.
She left behind her mother; her father, Charles Spurgeon; her sister, Krista Spurgeon; and her brother, Brandon DeLorenzo.
About a month after the fire, Rhonda Berger received a letter. Through that letter, sent by the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, she learned a 54-year-old man suffering from liver cancer received Jennifer’s liver.
A 17-year-old athlete who had contracted an infection that attacked his kidneys received a new one from Jennifer. A 64-year-old woman who had been on the transplant list for four years took the other.
Six months after the fire, Rhonda sat down to write letters to each of those people. She shared stories about her daughter and asked them to respond with a story about how their lives had changed as a result of Jennifer’s decision to donate.
“I knew she was in different parts of the state and hoped someday I would hear from them,” Rhonda said.
It took some time before the first letter arrived.
The message opened with an apology for the delayed response, then explained how difficult it had been to find the right words.
The letter was written by the wife of the 54-year-old man, who described how she watched him deteriorate before her eyes, praying that she’d get a call that they found a match. She said she was about a week away from losing him.
“I take no joy in you losing your Jennifer,” the letter read, “But I am eternally grateful for the selfless gift you have given (my husband).”
Months later, another letter arrived, this time from the mother of the 17-year-old.
The woman described her son’s battle with a disease that had attacked his kidneys, leaving him tethered at times to a dialysis machine.
“Your daughter is now my son’s guardian angel,” the woman wrote. “She’s given him a new freedom and experiences.”
Until the transplant, the young man had never had the chance to spend the night at a friend’s house or enjoy a night out with his classmates.
“Now, when we go away for the weekend, we don’t have to pack the machine, the solution, the masks, the bags; ... just a couple pill bottles. Such a change all because of your selfless gift.”
That young man is now a 22-year-old college student with dreams of becoming a nurse.
Zac Stanley was a junior at Lakeland High School in LaGrange when he was called out of class and told the hospital had a donor’s kidney waiting for him.
“I realized that this was my time. I was going to have a new life now,” he said in a telephone interview. “No more dialysis, no more nothing.”
It was also during that time that Zac changed his plan to be a math teacher or accountant to a career that would allow him to change lives just as others did for him.
“I want to bring joy to patients just like the nurses at Riley (Hospital for Children) did for me,” Zac said.
And then Rhonda met Betty.
Betty Ritchie had always been active, but about 10 years ago she learned she had a kidney disease that would require her to be on dialysis.
“One Sunday evening I got the call that there was a kidney for me,” Betty said by telephone. She was to receive Jennifer’s right kidney.
Betty had the surgery and for the next several months eagerly awaited her chance to meet the family of her donor.
“My doctor asked, do I want to meet her and I said, ‘Well, yes, or I wouldn’t be asking,’ ” she said with a laugh.
In October, that opportunity arrived.
“When we drove up and we saw each other, the tears rolled, we hugged, and it was like this instant bond. It was like we were instant family,” Rhonda said.
Betty began visiting the family for holidays, showing up on the doorstep and bringing a laugh and hugs for Jennifer’s birthday and the anniversary of her death.
The first year, she arrived just in time to trim the tree after Thanksgiving.
Rhonda at first wasn’t in the mood for decorating. Not without her entire family there. Not without Jennifer. But Betty latched on to a set of snowflake lights. She put them on her ears and began prancing around the room.
“It made it go so much easier,” Berger said, recalling how the family had laughed at Betty’s antics the way they might have in years before.
Because to her, watching Betty was like watching her daughter.
In some ways, Jennifer was still there.
Lara Punches held on for more than two weeks before she died, her parents at her side and her community praying for her.
Her brain, damaged by smoke, was destroying her organs.
She had just 10 percent brain activity and such significant damage that life support wasn’t enough.
As she worsened, her parents made the difficult decision to let their only child go. She was to be cremated.
“We knew she was getting a brand new body. She was a firm believer in Christ,” said her mother, Martha. “We knew turning around and standing at the casket and seeing her there – we knew we couldn’t do it.”
Her internal organs couldn’t be salvaged.
But her eyes, her skin, her tissue and even her bones would help improve the lives of dozens.
Through an organization called Fifty Lives, Lara’s bones from her jaw, upper and lower arms, pelvis, thigh, tibia, fibula and more would change the lives of 56 people forever.
With the help of the Community Tissue Service in Toledo, her tissue went on to help many others.
The Punches haven’t met the recipients, although they hope to someday, Martha said.
“I envy those people who got those pieces of her because they got a little piece of my baby,” she said. “But it’s about being unselfish enough to say I want my child, my daughter, I want some way for her to live on.”
It was mid-February when the Pattons’ letter arrived from the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization.
They opened the letter, reading through the description of each recipient.
Renae Patton’s liver went to a 65-year-old man from southwest Indiana who had been disabled since the age of 47 due to a joint disease.
One of her kidneys went to a 63-year-old woman in North Carolina who had been on the transplant list since 2006.
Her second kidney and pancreas went to a 41-year-old man from eastern Indiana who had been waiting for a transplant for nearly two years.
And her final gift, her heart, saved the life of a 52-year-old woman named Holly from Ohio.
Holly had been good about writing letters. She thanked them for the gift Renae had given her. She told them about her family. But she struggled to meet the family.
Survivor’s guilt, Louann Patton explained.
Last June, Louann and Terry met Holly for the first time.
And then they listened to Renae’s heart, beating steadily in Holly’s chest.
Another life saved.