'I'm not ready to go': Woman survived fire, lost a friend and wants to help other disaster victims
Penny Parks awoke to the sound of screams.
It was 5:20 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 15. Parks, 47, had gone to bed only an hour earlier. All had been quiet and peaceful then, but now her apartment on Fillmore Street was engulfed in flames — flames that were spreading fast. Her nephew, Derrek Valicenti, 34, was yelling from outside her open bedroom window. Her friend, 19-year-old Shandiin Rose Goodbird, was still in one of the apartment's bedrooms.
"I made the decision at that second that there was no way I could jump out that window without trying to get to her (Goodbird)," Parks said. "So I went and made the mistake of opening my door. I looked out and realized there was no way I was going to get to her or be able to get down the stairs."
Parks quickly shut the door again. But it was too late. She had fed oxygen to the fire, giving it strength as it rushed against her door.
"I still had my hand on the door and the fire had so much force it blew the door open," Parks recalled. "It melted all my hair off and gave me what looked like severe sunburn on my face. It blew me across the room onto my bed."
The blow disoriented Parks. She began crawling toward what she thought was the window but was actually the door. In the process, she inhaled smoke, burning her lungs and throat.
"I was having some very serious words with God at that moment," Parks said. "I said, 'I'm not ready to go, you can't take me, I want my grandchildren.' I made it to the window. ... I just used everything I had and pushed that screen open, got my head out that window and took a great big gulp of air."
Parks climbed out the window and clung from the windowsill, popping all the blood vessels in her fingertips. She knew she couldn't drop without risking serious injury. A neighbor, 21-year-old Demian Carter, told her to jump and that he would break her fall.
So she let go.
According to Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow, the cause of the fire isn't likely to be determined due to the extent of the damage. He says it's suspected that the fire began on the second floor of the building, near the stairs.
Goodbird, an Alexandria Technical and Community College fashion design and management student from Fort Totten, N.D., never made it out of the apartment that morning.
Her death was the third fire-related fatality in Alexandria this year. A fire caused by smoking killed two people in the Viking City mobile home park on Jan. 5.
A preliminary autopsy indicated Goodbird died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
"She was like a daughter to me," said Parks, who met Goodbird through a family member. "She was determined to make something of herself. She was so motivated and outgoing and full of happiness and positive energy. It's just really sad that she was just beginning her life — a good life — and it was taken from her."
After Parks jumped from the building, she was taken to an ambulance nearby.
"I just remember not being able to breathe," she said. "They did a carbon monoxide test, and actually thought the machine was broken (because the reading was so high). The second ambulance did it again and it was the same."
Parks and Valicenti, who suffered burns to his hand, were taken to Douglas County Hospital and then transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Parks was intubated and woke up the following day, Jan. 16.
"I was in a lot of pain," she said. "I did a lot of damage to my lungs and throat. My left lung is in a lot more pain. ... I have trouble sleeping because I'm not getting enough oxygen to my lungs. Sleep is something I truly miss."
In addition to lung and throat damage, the majority of Parks' hair was melted off and her face suffered minor burns.
"It totally changed my complexion," she said. "My skin is really rough now, not soft anymore. It actually moved my hairline back a little bit. I look in the mirror like, 'Who is this person?' I know I'm the same person inside but the outside looks so different."
Parks was later told that she was nearly killed due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
"They said a few more seconds and I would not have made it out," she said. "I'm lucky to be alive."
And Parks isn't taking being alive lightly. Because of the outpouring of support received by organizations such as the Red Cross, she is changing her career and going back to school for emergency response and disaster management. Currently Parks works at Brandon Municipal Liquor Store, but prior to the fire she was working on a degree in herbalism and accounting.
"I want to help people in these kinds of situations," Parks said. "I want to do what everyone did for me."
She also wants to make Goodbird proud, she says.
"I kind of came out of this fire thinking I'm going to live a positive life," Parks said. "She (Rose) would have wanted me to not dwell on her being gone. She would want me to be the best person I can be and focus on the good."
Additionally, Parks wants to help educate others on fire safety, so they know what steps to take in an emergency. For example, in her own situation, she says opening the door and giving the fire oxygen was a mistake.
"You're thinking about saving someone's life," she said. "You're not thinking about what happens when you open that door. I'm so lucky. It could have been so much worse."
An account for donations has been set up at First State Bank of Ashby in Parks' name.