After looking after generations of little hundreds of kids, Shirley Herrington finds it hard to return to her learning center on Bolton Road in Southwest Atlanta.
“I want to go back, but then I don’t, because that was my life. I don’t know how it would affect me right now,” Herrington said.
That’s because her last memories of Herrington Day School play like a nightmare.
A fire broke out Wednesday morning at the day-care center, which she and her husband opened 36 years ago. Herrington and her staff rushed nine of the preschoolers out of the building, but then she realized that a 4-year-old boy was still inside.
Without hesitation, Herrington broke in a window, crawled back into the building and inched through the smoke and flames to find him.
“She knocked [on] the door, and then she got a big ol’ stick and busted the window,” one of the children said. “She was trying to open the door, but she couldn’t.”
Herrington’s husband, Eugene, said she would never have done otherwise.
“She knew that one was missing. So she went back and called for that child by name,” Eugene Herrington said. “And he answered. Each time she called his name, he answered. And that’s how she found him, because the smoke was quite heavy and thick.”
The boy, identified as Davonte Lockhart, was nearly unconscious, and Herrington was burned.
“I don’t know how she did it,” said A.D. Bass, a neighbor, who helped pull Herrington and Davonte from the exit. “She just, by the grace of God, she came out with the child.”
‘I don’t like all this attention’
Davonte was fine Monday, but Herrington spent the rest of the week in the burn unit at Grady Memorial Hospital with burns on her neck.
Parents, firefighters and even complete strangers have called Herrington and sent her get-well cards calling her a hero, but the title doesn’t sit well with her.
“No, that’s not me,” she said in a voice still hoarse from smoke inhalation. “I don’t like all this attention. I’d like to just go on and do my job and get back to those kids.”
But that may not be easy after the fire, which started in the basement, seriously damaged the school. Police said the cause was under investigation.
Herrington is determined to welcome her kids back next month, but she remains in negotiations with her insurance company over whether the school can be rebuilt. If it can’t, she will have to accept an offer of temporary space at a nearby facility.
That was the furthest thing from Herrington’s mind when she dived back into her burning building last week.
“She wouldn't leave that child in there,” Bass said. “Even after she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, she crawled back in there and got that child.”
By Jon Shirek of NBC affiliate WXIA of Atlanta and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com.