Hansen: Youth showed heroism in tragic fire; now wants to be 'a regular guy' at Creighton - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:36 pm
Hansen: Youth showed heroism in tragic fire; now wants to be 'a regular guy' at Creighton

On the day before his first day of college, Maurice pulls on his blue T-shirt. He tugs his new Bluejay baseball cap over his eyes.

He walks with me toward St. John Church, and I watch as he wades into a thousand other blue T-shirts.

Together, on Tuesday morning, they wait for the start of the Creighton Pathway, a symbolic procession through campus for the university's incoming freshmen.

Together, Maurice and the 959 other Creighton University freshmen wait for their futures to begin.

“Have you talked to any of them about the fire, Maurice?” I ask him.

“Nah,” he says. “I just want to be a regular guy.”

This past spring, Maurice McCabe Schmelzer was a senior steaming toward graduation at the prestigious Boston College High School. He had been accepted at some of the country's top universities, including Creighton. He was leaning toward Spring Hill College, one of the best Jesuit schools in the South.

On April 9, he stood in the kitchen of the house his family rented in a suburb northeast of Boston.

“Do you smell smoke?” his mother, Kathleen McCabe, asked him.

“Nah,” he said.

Then he walked into the front hallway, and he did.

He ran up the stairs. He ran into his room. His bed was engulfed in flames. Quickly the room got dark, darker than midnight, so dark he couldn't find the doorknob to escape.

He pounded on the wall. He pounded on the door. He screamed.

“Mom, I'm trapped!”

Then the door opened — Kathleen had run up the stairs and yanked it open — and together mother and son ran back downstairs and toward the front door. Toward safety.

Mom stopped.

“Where is Tori?” she asked.

“Tori!” they screamed.

Victoria McCabe Schmelzer, Maurice's younger sister, was asleep. She popped out of her room and stood on the landing near the stairs. She hesitated.

The fire burned all around her. She ducked back into her room.

“She was afraid,” Maurice said.

Maurice ran back up the stairs. He ran back into the fire. He ran toward his little sister's bedroom.

The smoke was thick now, stinging his eyes and filling his lungs.

He coughed and gasped as he felt blindly in the dark for his sister. He couldn't reach her. He couldn't breathe.

He ran back downstairs and sucked clean air into his lungs.

He turned around. He went back upstairs.

He coughed and gasped again. He groped blindly in the dark again. He screamed her name. He couldn't breathe.

Nothing.

He ran back downstairs and dialed 911.

The firetrucks screeched up in front of the house on Summer Street in three minutes flat — the fire station is right in the neighborhood — and firefighters burst into Victoria's room four minutes after that.

They carried her to safety, zipped her to the ambulance, transported her to Massachusetts General.

It didn't matter. She died the next morning.

She was 15.

“I just couldn't find her,” Maurice says, and he looks at the floor.

The family lost most of its possessions in the fire. Maurice lost nearly everything he owned. They didn't have renter's insurance.

The Red Cross put them in a hotel. From the hotel, on April 30, Maurice emailed all the schools on his short list.

He asked for an extension on the May 1 filing deadline. By way of explanation, he mentioned the fire. He mentioned Victoria.

Sarah Richardson, Creighton's director of admissions, received the email at 10:30 p.m. She knew Maurice already, knew that he was a good student at a great high school. She knew he was particularly strong in English. She knew that he had an interest in service — prison ministry is in fact what he wants to do when he graduates.

She called Mary Chase, Creighton's associate vice president for enrollment.

I have an idea, she said.

Chase and the school's development staff worked the phones. They told Maurice's story. They asked for help.

Within days, Maurice's high school guidance counselor summoned him for a meeting.

Creighton is offering to pay your tuition, Maurice. All of it. For at least three years. Probably four.

Would you be interested in that?

This is how Maurice McCabe Schmelzer came to land at Eppley Airfield on Friday night.

He arrived here because three donors have given $50,000 each to let him go to school for free. Tuition, fees, room, board, textbooks, health insurance — it's all paid.

The 18-year-old arrived by himself, because there's no money to spare right now for extra plane tickets. He arrived in a strange city halfway across the country from home.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

“Did you take a cab to Creighton?” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me. “Sarah picked me up.”

Sarah Richardson, head of admissions, helped Maurice move into his dorm room. She and her husband took him to dinner. They answered his questions about Omaha — what do Creighton kids do in their free time? Where do they go?

She has talked repeatedly on the phone with his mother, and she has texted Maurice advice about buying textbooks. She has told him about the counseling offered at the health center, and she has lined up a history professor who will serve as a mentor. She has told him that she will host his graduation party when he gets his degree.

Think about it, she tells me. Going away to college is hard. Going away to college 2,000 miles from home is harder. And going away to college four months after the fire is …

“Brave,” Richardson says. “He is brave. And he's passionate about helping others, too.

“He is exactly the kind of kid we want at Creighton. That is who we are. And that is what makes Maurice tick.”

So on Tuesday morning Maurice gets up and he puts on his new blue clothes. He stands with a dozen other blue T-shirt wearers in front of St. John's. Some are new friends from his dorm, known as the Cortina Community, which focuses on doing community service projects. Some are other freshmen he has met during various events, like a dance, held during move-in weekend.

The clock chimes 10 times. Dignitaries, including Father Timothy Lannon, Creighton's president, speak.

Then it is time to walk across campus.

The idea behind Creighton Pathway is that it's a symbolic beginning to your collegiate journey, a bookend to Creighton's graduation ceremony.

Students split into their various colleges — dentistry, business, law — and march east on the university's main brick path to the Ryan Athletic Center. Professors and staff and graduates stand along the route and cheer.

But the Creighton Pathway serves another purpose as Maurice begins to walk with the rest of the freshmen in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

At first he is visible in the crowd. He is Maurice, survivor of horrific tragedy. Maurice, the recipient of the kindness of complete strangers.

But soon the students bunch together, and he gets lost in the crowd.

The students keep marching, a river of blue moving past me on their way to the Ryan Center.

The river of blue flows east toward the future. Maurice is in there somewhere, but he's hidden now. He's one of a thousand. He's surrounded.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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