By Emily Le Coz | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Five years ago this month at a one-story brick home in the Palmetto community, an ignited gas leak unleashed a fiery blast that forever changed the lives of a family.
Carlithia Hunt-Devould, who then went by Carlithia Grice, suffered severe burns on her back, her neck and her face. Her then-2-year-old daughter, Sinias, fared even worse. In addition to the burns, she also sustained acute lung and throat damage that required a tracheostomy tube for nearly two years.
Since then, mother and daughter have endured repeated surgeries, skin grafts, injections, doctors’ visits and counseling sessions. And though their conditions have stabilized enough now to allow a normal existence, both face a lifetime of medical care.
“We have our good days and we have our bad days, but lately we have more good days than bad,” said Hunt-Devould from her home in Augusta, Ga., where she has been living since the accident to be closer to the specialized medical care she and her daughter require.
On the five-year anniversary of the explosion, Hunt-Devould reflected on ways her life has changed. She refuses to use gas in her home, no longer enjoys the warmth of a furnace on a cold day, and avoids the stares of strangers who wonder what happened to her skin.
She also relies more on God and her family, she said. And she appreciates every day as though it were a treasured gift, which she said it is.
“Since the accident my life has really changed tremendously,” the 31-year-old said. “It brought a big toll on the family – divorces occurred because we didn’t know how to handle it as a family, but it brought some families together.”
Hunt-Devould divorced her then-husband Shon Grice three years ago. The stress of the accident had exacerbated their marital issues, but they remain friends for the sake of their children. This summer, Hunt-Devould married Kevin Devould.
“As far as me and my kids go, I really value life a whole lot more now,” she said. “I always believed in God, but after that day it was something else. I remember falling to my knees, saying ‘Lord have mercy on me, I know I am a sinner.’ Knowing the Lord and what He can do and what He will do, that changed my faith tremendously.”
Hunt-Devould also has a daughter, Sincere, 11, and a son Nasir, 9, who were not injured in the blast.
It was Dec. 5, 2006, less than three weeks before Christmas. Hunt-Devould paid a visit to her sister-in-law, Sophia Hunt, at the one-story home in Palmetto. She brought Sinias to play with Hunt’s children, Lanazia, who was 2 at the time, and Natetreuna, who was 3.
The women, then both 26 years old, chatted while the kids watched TV from the living room couch – just feet away from the Christmas tree and the promise of a special holiday.
At about 11 a.m., Hunt put a pot on the stove to boil water for greens. She lit the burner, and instantly a sheet of flames surged forth to engulf the walls, quickly climbing to the ceiling and wrapping itself overhead. In an instant, the entire kitchen was ablaze. Investigators later blamed the fire on a gas leak in the living room.
As flames rolled over her head, Hunt screamed for her sister-in-law and the kids to leave the house.
Hunt-Devould ran to unlock the front door. And suddenly, the entire house exploded. The force of the blast blew the door off its hinges and both women into the yard. Hunt ran back inside for the children. She found Sinias first and threw the girl to her mother. Hunt-Devould tried to catch the child but dropped her, because the skin on her hands already was sliding off and she couldn’t grip.
Then Hunt went in for her own children who were still on the couch and covering their heads in their arms. She scooped one under each arm and ran out the door.
Outside, neighbors rushed to the scene and helped strip burning clothes from the children, who were screaming and rattled with fright. Natetreuna, who was alert and sucking her fingers in the moments after the accident, later fell into a coma and died.
“Not a day goes by I don’t think about Natetreuna and how she would be turning 8 years old this December if she was still here,” Hunt-Devould said.
Learning to live again
Sinias also has a birthday this month; she turns 7. She and her family returned to Tupelo on Saturday to celebrate with a party at Skate Zone. Although the scars remain visible – especially on the girl’s forehead – she behaves as any child on her birthday would.
Dressed in a princess tutu and tiara, Sinias tentatively skated around the rink in the company of family and friends. She smiled broadly as her party sang “Happy Birthday” and then excitedly dove into pizza, cupcakes and presents.
“She acts just like a typical kid, but (last week) was the first time she ever asked what happened,” Hunt-Devould said. “I just told her that we went to Sophia’s house to see the girls, and a guy came by and lit the pilot light and it changed our lives. We almost died. I didn’t hide details.”
Sinias accepted the information with a nod. She wanted to know more about her cousin who died and why nobody tried harder to save her. She also wanted details about her own early struggles, about her months in the hospital and her multiple surgeries.
She has vague memories of that time, but the specifics elude her.
Sinias’ fight isn’t over, though. Because of her lung and throat damage, the little girl takes four daily medicines to help her breathe and also relies on oxygen tanks and a nebulizer. And because she’s still growing, she must endure more skin grafts and more surgeries on her airway.
She might one day require another tracheostomy tube, which is a small tube placed directly into the windpipe to facilitate breathing.
“She’s still high risk,” Hunt-Devould said. “Our house is still on medical alert, but she no longer attends a special school for medically fragile children. She attends regular schools.”
As the years go by, Hunt-Devould said she hopes both she and her daughter continue to improve. They want to lead normal lives. They want the stares to subside. They want to be free from the shadows of Dec. 5, 2006.
But the milestones will always remind them.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been five years, but I have a lot to be thankful for,” Hunt-Devould said. “I still remember as if it was yesterday. The closer it gets to the anniversary, that’s when the nightmares start coming.”