Woman who lost daughter, granddaughter in fire is working to prevent further tragedies

John Thompson • Feb 20, 2018 at 10:36 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Emma Grindstaff has lived the worst nightmare a mother could ever have, and also the worst nightmare a grandmother could ever have. Now, Grindstaff is working to make sure another mother or grandmother does not go through the same nightmare.

Grindstaff's daughter, Dana Keeling was 20 years old when a fire broke out in Keeling's apartment at the Elizabethton Housing and Development Agency's Pine Ridge Circle apartment complex in November 2016. Both Keeling and her 3-year-old daughter, Sara, were trapped on the second floor of their apartment.

“They had no way out,” Grindstaff said.

Since that time, Grindstaff has made it her mission to provide a way for residents of EHDA housing who live in two-story apartments with a way to get out when fire is blocking the stairs to the first floor.

Grindstaff said she still suffers because she never had a chance to say goodbye to "my two babies." She said she calls them her "babies" because Dana was her youngest daughter and Sara was her only granddaughter.

"The last time I spoke to them on the phone, Dana told me she loved me and Sara, who always said 'mine' for 'mym" told me 'you are mine sunshine.'"

She said Sara had just become a 3-year-old 10 days before she died. Grindstaff said Dana had become pregnant with Sara when she was 16, but she still graduated on time with the rest of her class. She went on to work in the health field and was doing well.

From out of the depths of her grief, Grindstaff made a vow to her babies that she would make sure their deaths would help save the lives of others.

She said her first ideas were rejected for various reasons, but she kept searching for a way that met local and federal housing regulations and city ordinances. The solution is a two-story fire escape ladder, made of steel and with hooks that secure the ladder to the window sill. When not in use, the ladder can be folded up into a small package that can be placed next to a second-floor window.

The ladders are the First Alert EL 52-2.

Mike Barnett, owner of Big John's Closeouts, said he will have some of the escape ladders in stock next week. Grindstaff said his making them available to Grindstaff’s project at a cost of $28 each.

Now that she has found the solution, Grindstaff is planning to have them installed in all 150 of EHDA's two-story apartments. That will require $4,200.

Angie Odom of TLC Community Center has been assisting Grindstaff in her project. "I first got to know Sara because she was one of the children who we provided with food in our summer feeding program,” Odom said.

Even though Sara was only 2 years old at that time, she stood out because Grindstaff said she was so polite, always saying "thank you" and she was so happy to receive the food.

Grindstaff has information on the fundraising project on her Facebook page. It is called the Safekeeping Project for Dana and Sara Keeling. Donations may be mailed or delivered to the TLC Community Center, Safekeeping Project, 145 Judge Don Lewis Blvd., Suites 5, 6, 7, Elizabethton, TN, 37643, or by calling 543-4673.

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