A Peoria woman badly burned in a fire that claimed the life of the infant she hoped to adopt is now being sued by the girl's mother in a wrongful death suit.
Valerie Edwards didn’t feel her skin burning the morning her house was engulfed in flames.
She was determined to save her foster child, who was trapped in her crib upstairs.
"It was a blaze," said Edwards, who repeatedly entered her burning house the morning of Dec. 26 in an attempt to save 11-month-old Anariah West. "I ran out of the house, got some air, then went back in. All I was seeing in my head was that baby."
Firefighters eventually rescued the infant, but she died later that day of smoke inhalation.
Edwards, 50, suffered third-degree burns and was in a coma for about five weeks. Her house, 821 W. Spring Hollow, was destroyed in the fire, and she is facing nearly $1 million in medical bills, having been through several surgeries and only needing more. Full of pain, both physically and emotionally, Edwards didn’t think it could get any worse.
Then last month, Edwards received a letter that she is being sued by Anariah’s mother, Tanesha West, who is claiming damages in excess of $50,000 for the wrongful death of her baby.
Edwards and her husband had custody of Anariah and were hoping to adopt her, though Tanesha West was hoping to regain custody at an upcoming court hearing. The couple had adopted West’s three other children two years ago, but they were staying with another relative at the time of the fire.
Tanesha West didn’t return phone calls for comment, and her attorney, Peter LaSorsa, said he won’t comment on ongoing cases.
"I never did anything to hurt her," Edwards said of Anariah on Tuesday as she sat at a picnic table at Glen Oak Park, tears streaming down her burned face.
Edwards’ open wounds were attracting gnats that she struggled to bat away with the one arm she can bend, thanks to surgery that loosened the melted skin around her elbow. She wears sleeveless shirts so her clothes don’t stick to her unhealed burns.
"I was pulling her back, and her skin was coming off in my hand," said Edwards’ daughter Chevodkia Wade, 27, who escaped the fire through a basement window.
Firefighters were overcome by flames when they first tried to enter Anariah’s bedroom from a ladder outside the house. When they finally got to the infant, her face and neck were severely burned and she didn’t have a pulse. She was resuscitated in an ambulance but died later that day of smoke inhalation.
Edwards and the Peoria Fire Department still don’t know what caused the blaze.
"The cause was never pinned down by us or the investigators the insurance company brought in," said Peoria Fire Division Chief Emil Steinseifer. "No one could pin it down, so we all just left it undetermined."
The morning of the fire, Edwards woke to the sound of a smoke detector about 1 a.m. She pulled her 9-year-old niece, Jayla Clark, from the couch. Her nephew, Nikko Clark, 19, and her daughter, Khadjah Edwards, 17, also were in the house but escaped unharmed.
Edwards’ husband, Elbert, was at work.
"My neighbor called me and told me my house was on fire and my baby was trapped inside," he remembers. "That was the night my world turned upside down. I lost my sanity."
He said he and his wife treated Anariah like she was their own child.
"We know we didn’t do anything wrong," he said, remembering coming home from work every day, dropping his bag and going straight to the baby. "We just wanted to give that little girl an opportunity to make something of herself."
The couple is now living in a small house with their five children and two nephews. Elbert Edwards returned to work just three weeks ago, after battling depression and staying home to care for his wife, who had two jobs of her own before the fire.
"We have missed doctor bills, and a couple times, I didn’t have gas to go to Springfield for treatment," Valerie Edwards said, though making a point she doesn’t want pity. She’s just thankful for her family’s help doing chores she can’t do anymore and also for strangers who approach her and tell her she’s in their prayers.
The Edwards are scheduled to appear in court at the end of September, though they know they can’t afford an attorney.
"I’m going to have to walk in there and tell them I didn’t kill that baby," Valerie Edwards said confidently.
Erin Wood can be reached at (309) 686-3194 or firstname.lastname@example.org.