30th September 2007, early Sunday morning. The 25-year-old friends Kristin Pietrowicz and Susan Thorne were asleep in their second-floor apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when the fire broke out.
Kristin woke up about 2 a.m. She saw a glow from her bedroom window and smoke coming through the door. She called 911, woke up Susan and grabbed their two cats. They headed to their balcony. The smoke was meanwhile so dense the two friends could hardly see each other. The apartments below and next to them were all on fire. Kristin urged Susan to jump, even though the 911 operator told them to wait until the fire brigade arrived. Then the balcony's glass doors exploded, showering the two with shards of glass.
"I knew we wouldn't make it unless we jumped," Kristin said. "I knew for a fact that if I didn't jump, I would burn or die of smoke inhalation. All I could think about was we had to get off the balcony." The balcony was more than two stories up. Pietrowicz went first, throwing her legs over the railing, then letting herself fall. At some point in the air, she let go of her cat. Lying on the ground in "intense pain", Kristin turned to see Susan falling through the air. Behind her friend, the balcony they had stood on seconds before caught on fire. They had jumped just in time.
On the ground Susan started crawling away, afraid that first-story sliding glass doors near her would blow out. But her back hurt too much to move very far. Furthermore, she worried as the woods around her caught fire. The friends yelled at each other through the smoke until rescue workers arrived. A responding police officer found Kristin first. He carried her away from the fire. Susan was found by a fire-fighter and carried out on a stretcher. The men didn't want to lift her because her back hurt so badly. The two friends were transported together to the University of North Carolina Hospital Trauma Center.
The fire burned through the apartment building in five minutes. One woman, the downstairs neighbour of Pietrowicz and Thorne, died and 20 people were displaced by the blaze. Investigators thought they may never be able to determine the cause of the fire.
The two friends have known each other since they were 4 years old, growing up in Hudson, Ohio. Both attended Kent State University. When Thorne took a teaching job in Chapel Hill last year, Pietrowicz decided to follow, going back to school to become a teacher herself.
To escape from the fire they jumped more than 35 feet. Their lower bodies took the impact of the fall. At hospital Susan Thorne's heels and ankles were wrapped in thick bandages. She injured her lower back as well. And she is having nightmares about the fire. Kristin Pietrowicz broke her ankles and feet, and suffered compressed spinal fractures. One of her heels was wrapped. The other ankle was held in place by rods after surgery. Twenty screws, two metal plates and several pieces of artificial bone keep Kristin's foot intact, while a back brace stabilizes her spine.
For Pietrowicz and Thorne, life is a waiting game. For now, physical barriers, like not being able to twist from side to side, make daily activities like brushing teeth challenging. "It makes you really see all those little things," Thorne said. "You learn to cherish the ability to walk, go to the bathroom and take a shower." The timeline of recovery is vague, as it depends on the body's ability to heal. Pietrowicz, who has moved faster than anticipated, had the casts removed from her legs and replaced with boots after one month. She can now lower her feet when sitting. "We're at the downward slope of the hill now, the recovery side," Pietrowicz said. "It's given me a lot of time to readjust and figure out what's important." Thorne, who still spends her days lying with her feet elevated, had to leave her job teaching math at Chapel Hill High School.
Their surgeon said their prognosis is good, despite their severe injuries. They face more operations, but they should be walking in about three months and resuming normal activities in six months to a year. Both, now in wheelchairs, plan to walk by January. The day before the fire, Kristin ran her first half-marathon. Now she is planning to run it again next year.