Nobody can be sure how much time passed between the moment Shelby Carter realized her Illinois home was engulfed in flames and the moment she decided to strap her 12-day-old infant into a car seat and toss the baby from a second-story window.
Probably seconds, or maybe a minute or two, investigators say.
But her decision — likely the 21-year-old mother’s last — was gut-wrenching and heroic. Her quick thinking saved her newborn before a wall of fire and smoke tore through the upstairs bedroom of the wood-frame house where Carter lived with her mother, investigators say.
“It’s just incredible that she was able to pull her thoughts together to save her baby,” said Ed Foglesonger, chief of the Wyoming-Speer Fire Protection District. “It’s just too bad she couldn’t save herself, but I’d say it’s nothing short of a miracle the way it ended up.”
When rescuers made their way inside the home Monday morning in Wyoming, Ill., they found Carter’s body in the bedroom.
An autopsy revealed that she was killed by carbon monoxide intoxication from smoke inhalation after smashing a window to save her baby, Foglesonger said. Rescuers found Carter’s infant, Keana Davis, in her car seat, which was resting on top of a pile of debris, the fire chief said.
Miraculously, he added, the baby had just a minor burn and escaped serious injury.
Keana was taken to a hospital in good condition and later released.
“The good news is, the baby got home and is doing great,” Stark County Sheriff Steve Sloan told the Peoria Journal Star a day after the fire.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, but investigators said it doesn’t appear to be suspicious.
Carter’s death has dealt a painful blow to the residents of Wyoming, a close-knit town of 1,400 people about three hours southwest of Chicago. Sloan told the Journal Star that Monday’s blaze was the first fatal fire in Stark County in perhaps 30 years.
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money for Carter’s daughter and mother raised more than $5,500 in two days. Foglesonger said the town has rallied around the family and found comfort knowing that her final act was saving a child’s life.
On Facebook and GoFundMe, family members and friends have hailed the young mother as a hero.
“Her 21st birthday was yesterday and on Facebook she had posted, you know, ‘What a great birthday!'” Carter’s cousin, Shawna Burwell, told CBS affiliate WMBD. “This morning on Snapchat I seen ‘loving these mommy moments’ and she had the baby laying on her chest.”
The Kewanee Star Courier reported that Carter’s mother, Kathy Hardy, posted a photo on Facebook of her infant granddaughter at the hospital with the words “Beautiful Miracle.”
“Shelby was a fantastic mom and proud of her baby girl,” the victim’s aunt, Deb Carter Burwell, added, according to the newspaper.
“Words cannot describe what has happened within our community today,” the Wyoming-Speer Fire Protection District posted on Facebook. “We have experienced a feeling that no department wants to go through. Words cannot express the way we truly feel. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family involved.”
Shelby graduated from Stark County High School in 2014, according to her obituary. While still in school, friends said, she was a focused student who played center on the school’s basketball team. Friends said Carter’s reserved demeanor disappeared when she stepped on the basketball court, where she was known as a “feisty” competitor.
“She was very, very smart,” said Carter’s lifelong friend and teammate, Anna Steelman. “I think people underestimated that about her because she was quiet and she wasn’t one to make herself the center of attention. She stayed back in the crowd and did her work and got stuff done on the court and in the classroom. She was very task-oriented.”
After graduation, Carter worked as a nail technician and “was currently going back to school at MidState to be a Pharmacy Technician,” her obituary said.
“Playing basketball and children were Shelby’s passion,” the obituary continued. “She loved every child she came in contact with and they loved her. Her greatest moment was becoming a mom.”
Taking care of children came naturally to Carter because she was an inherently protective person, Steelman said. She started babysitting at a young age and, when she got older, she became the person friends turned to when they were having relationship problems or needed advice, her friend said.
Asked whether she was surprised that Carter lost her life saving her child, Steelman said, “Absolutely not.”
“She was a strong girl and if she had a task she would get it done, even if it meant sacrificing herself,” she said. “She’s a hero and we’re all very proud of her.”