For five months, Dave Apperson left his landscaping job early every Friday and drove from Spokane to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle to see his son.
For five months, Jessica Hammond was terrified to go back to work, afraid if she wasn’t with her kids in Spokane or visiting her fiancé at the hospital in Seattle, something tragic would happen.
For five months, Melissa Apperson balanced classes and homework with weekly trips to Seattle. She would tell her brother about songs that made her think of him.
And for five months, Shawn Apperson endured dozens of surgeries in the hospital’s burn unit. He survived bouts of pneumonia, unstable blood pressure, kidney failure and heart problems.
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It ended Friday. He died after his care team removed him from the ventilator that had kept him alive since he rescued his fiancée and their baby girl from their burning Spokane home one cold December morning.
After pushing Hammond and their baby through a window, Shawn Apperson, 29, collapsed trying to fight his way upstairs to rescue their three other children.
Neighbors broke out windows to rescue two of them. A firefighter who burst into the home carried out the third — a frightened 3-year-old boy who hid at the sound of breaking glass.
“My son is a hero,” Dave Apperson said.
The family made the trip to Seattle last week knowing it would be their last.
Until a month ago, Shawn Apperson was awake, alert and finding ways to communicate. Doctors had been able to repair the skin burned over 65 percent of his body.
And then a sudden cardiac arrest left him paralyzed. His health spiraled. On Friday afternoon, surrounded by his family, Shawn Apperson died.
“I held his hand and hugged his head until he went on his own way,” his father said.
As the entire family grieves, their focus remains on the four children. Each is younger than 6. They carry the fright of the fiery morning with them still.
“The stairs are on fire! The stairs are on fire!” 3-year-old Kaiden yelled recently. Hammond threw open the door. She found Kaiden safely standing in the middle of the bathroom.
“I asked him, ‘Why are you saying that?’ ” Hammond said. “He just looked at me with a blank stare.”
The children have lingering trauma, including the loss of Shawn Apperson’s presence in their lives.
After firefighters pulled terrified Kaiden from his hiding place in a hallway, the boy spent a week in the hospital to treat smoke inhalation. He still wheezes on occasion.
And fire burned the tips of Ella’s toes when her father placed her on a griddle-hot basement floor so that he could smash the window and push her out to safety. She was 10 months old and on the verge of taking her first steps before the fire altered how her life would unfold.
She wouldn’t try again for two months.
Cooking smells now make the kids nervous.
All four kids were living with the pair when the fire started. Sam, 5, is Shawn Apperson’s son from a previous relationship, and Kaiden and 5-year-old Lainey are Hammond’s children from a previous relationship. Ella is their only child together.
Hammond, 22, said the six were a family nonetheless, and Shawn Apperson was dad to all of them. The pair were supposed to get married in June.
Over their three years of living together — not to mention the 10 years they knew each other as kids in the same neighborhood — they worked together at a Chili’s restaurant and were finally able to move into their home.
Cigarette started fire
The fire department determined the cause of the fire to be a cigarette that an overnight guest had left burning before leaving for work around 7 a.m. The fire trapped Apperson, Hammond and Ella in their basement bedrooms until he broke out the window.
A few months later, Hammond went back to work at Chili’s and moved into an apartment with three of the children. Sam has spent more time with his mother.
The one weekend Hammond stayed behind from Seattle and worked was when Apperson went into cardiac arrest. She took another leave of absence, unable to bear the thought of not being there for him or her kids.
Hammond moved back into her parents’ home last week.
Their first day there, she taught each child how to get out of the house if there was a fire. They practiced crawling, opening windows and touching doorknobs to see if they were hot.
She also made sure the smoke detectors worked. Hammond said a fire investigator told her if the smoke detectors in their home had been working they might have been awakened 20 minutes earlier.
Dave Apperson has used work as an escape. His landscape job at the Iron Bridge building provides a peaceful place filled with trees and flowers instead of hospital beds and tubes.
“This is my serenity,” he said as he dug around a flower bed near the Spokane River a few weeks ago. “This is where I pray and get it out.”
Shawn Apperson’s sister Melissa, 30, is about to start pharmacy school and said she pushed through these last few months knowing she would one day be able to help support her nieces and nephews.
Hammond said friends and family have been essential to her survival the last five months. Her parents and brother have been caregivers for her children. Shawn Apperson’s mother lives in Oregon and was a constant presence at the hospital. Dave Apperson drove Hammond and his daughters, Melissa and Jessie, to see their brother every weekend.
The family has relied on each other and the community for support. Friends and local businesses pitched in to hold benefit concerts and other fundraisers, collecting thousands of dollars for the family so they could stay in Seattle with Shawn Apperson each weekend.
Churches the family doesn’t even belong to held prayer sessions and fundraisers for him.
Dave Apperson’s co-workers at the Iron Bridge complex routinely gave him gift cards for groceries or gas. His boss sent him home early every Friday so he could get on the road ahead of weekend traffic.
The support allowed the family to focus on Shawn Apperson without worrying about the kids.
With him gone now, Hammond said her sadness is matched only by her thankfulness he is no longer suffering.
“When he went, he went with a smile on his face,” she said. “It makes you feel like he was ready.”