Only a week before Christmas, an Omaha family was torn apart by a fatal fire.
The 18-year-old mother of three awoke shortly after sunrise when she heard glass shattering in their mobile home, probably from the intense heat of the flames.
Champaine Harn opened the bedroom door to see what was going on. Black smoke quickly engulfed the room where she and the children had been sleeping. Their father was at work.
Flames surged in the living room, where a large electric heater sat. The family had no working furnace. Harn had bought the heater for $200 a week earlier, and fire officials say it is the likely cause of the Dec. 18 blaze.
In a World-Herald interview, Harn said she knew there was no chance she and the kids could get out through the front doorway.
She broke the bedroom window, hoping the crisp winter air would rush in and make it easier for them to breathe. But the dark air thickened, and smoke coated Harn's lungs while she hastily tried to find her kids.
Adrianna, age 1, was right by her side.
But Gabriel, 3, had taken off running toward the front door when Harn broke the window — perhaps scared by the sound of breaking glass. He said “mommy'' in the sweetest voice, Harn said, as he headed into the flames.
Harn tried to reach her 3-month-old son, Brandon, who had been sleeping in his bassinet in her room, but she couldn't find him.
“I just could not breathe any longer,” she said. “I didn't want to get out, but I had to.”
She climbed out the window with Adrianna. A neighbor tried to enter the trailer to save the boys, but the flames were too hot, Harn said.
Firefighters arrived about 8:15 a.m. Harn and her daughter were taken to Creighton University Medical Center.
Meanwhile, authorities set out to find the children's father and Harn's fiance, Victor Rodriguez, who was not at home because he had already left for work on a construction job.
Rodriguez arrived at the hospital thinking that his boys were safe but that Adrianna and Harn were badly hurt. He soon found out that Adrianna suffered a cough from inhaling the smoke but was otherwise fine. He kept asking nurses where his boys were, but he didn't get an answer right away.
Doctors had put Harn in a medically induced coma. She woke up several days later with a breathing tube down her throat and couldn't speak. She wrote down, “Where are my boys? Are they OK?”
Her family broke the news to her — Gabriel and Brandon had died. She was later told that firefighters found Gabriel's body by the front door.
“They are so precious and innocent,” she said. “Why did my kids have to suffer like that?”
Harn is now out of the hospital and living in an apartment with Rodriguez and their daughter. Her voice is hoarse from the smoke inhalation and the breathing tube, but she feels OK.
Still, they don't know how to move on without the boys, Harn said.
She tries to stay busy to keep her mind off of her broken heart, but then she feels guilty for trying to be happy. She said she has enrolled in school and that she and Rodriguez will both be back at work by Monday.
“It is hard living life without them,” Harn said. “I don't know how to be happy.”
Rodriguez said he is coping by praying a lot and has strengthened his relationship with God. The couple had planned to marry before the new year, but the fire put those plans on hold.
“I just can't get married so soon after they're gone,” Harn said.
Adrianna also had a hard time after the fire. She was grumpy, cried and didn't want to play with toys. But she is starting to act like herself again, Harn said. She often looks at pictures of her brothers on her mom's cellphone. When she sees a picture of Brandon, she says, “Hi, baby.”
Blown-up pictures of Gabriel and Brandon hang on the wall above the couple's new couch.
“Just knowing that the two little boys that I loved with all of my heart, I will never get them back,” Harn said. “That is the hardest part.”
This week, Harn returned to the mobile home at Maplewood Estates, near 129th Street and West Maple Road, for the first time since the fire.
“It looks like a skeleton,” Harn said. “It is pretty bad.”
She wanted to go through the trailer to see whether anything, especially pictures, home videos and a camera, could be recovered. The visual memories of her children have been charred and lost, too, she said. Fortunately, Harn said, she had posted some photos of her children to Facebook.
The pictures of her boys hanging on her new living room walls were displayed at the funeral.
The community offered an outpouring of support by donating money for funeral costs, furniture and toys, Harn said.
While the family returns to normal routines, Harn said, surviving won't be easy. The couple said they will keep moving forward for Adrianna, so they can hold on to the family they have left.