You Meet the Bravest People at Camp Susquehanna: Elliye and Miles’ Story
Posted on Oct 19, 2023 in Camp
Courage is something that lives in our hearts, not in our minds. If you want proof, talk to Elliye and Miles, two siblings who literally walked through fire to save others. Their story reveals an extraordinary capacity within the human spirit to manifest courage almost beyond comprehension.
On the night of January 12th, 2022, their father, Josh, was working third shift. His wife Tiffany was at home asleep with the family’s five children. Elliye, the oldest, was 12 at the time. Miles was 7. Twins Archer and Holden were 5, and toddler Watson was just about to turn 2.
On most nights, Tiffany slept downstairs, and the twins and Watson shared a bedroom upstairs. Miles and Elliye each had their own bedroom, also upstairs.
About 1 AM, Josh got a phone alert that their home security cameras had all shut down. Sensing that something was very wrong, he immediately called Tiffany and then Elliye. Getting no answer, he started for home. As he reached his car he got a text from Tiffany: HOUSE FIRE HOME NOW.
Josh made it home in about 30 minutes. He arrived to find police and firefighters on the scene, and the house still burning. A police officer ran with him to an ambulance where he found Tiffany and the twins, all physically OK. But Tiffany relayed devastating news.
“The first thing my wife said to me was, ‘Watson didn’t make it out, and Elliye and Miles are very badly burned,’” Josh stated.
Getting to the burn center
By the time Josh arrived, Elliye and Miles were already on their way by ambulance to the UPMC Hamot trauma center in Erie, PA. Their burns were so severe that the hospital recommended they both be helicoptered to a regional burn center. Elliye had burns over 58% of her body, including her face, neck, hands, chest, back, and feet. Miles was burned over 91% of his body. Both also had life-threatening inhalation injuries. Neither was expected to survive for even 24 hours.
UPMC Mercy Regional Burn Center in Pittsburgh was the closest regional burn center and they only had one spot left. Josh recalled: “The ER people had already called and there was one spot available in Pittsburgh, then the next closest place was in Tampa. The helicopter pilot was the one who said, ‘You call Mercy back and tell them to open up another bed. They’re both going to Mercy. If we fly to Florida, one of them will not make it.’”
Once at the burn center, Elliye and Miles were immediately put on ventilators. Elliye’s lungs shut down for over a week, and both kids’ hearts went into atrial fibrillation multiple times in those first hours.
“It was touch and go, every single day,” said Josh.
After several weeks of intensive care, Elliye started to regain consciousness. But it wasn’t until almost a month later that Miles began waking up.
“Our rooms were connected, and I would go over and talk with him,” Elliye shared. “He couldn’t really talk, but I would talk to him. Most of the time he was watching YouTube, like normal.”
Timeline of the fire
The family remained in Pittsburgh for about five months while Miles and Elliye got burn treatments, occupational and physical therapy, and psychological counseling. As the kids began to talk about what they’d been through, many of the unknowns about what happened in the fire could be answered. And an incredible story of love and courage emerged.
But the night of the fire, the twins came downstairs and climbed into Tiffany’s bed shortly before midnight. They’d been woken by Miles, who came in to share their bed next to Watson’s crib.
If they’d stayed in their bed, Archer and Holden might not have escaped the flames unhurt. The fire was electrical in origin. It started near the center of the house and quickly engulfed the boys’ bedroom and the central staircase—the only egress from upstairs.
Elliye’s room was between her brothers’ rooms. That night she was up late and noticed Miles changing rooms. But then Elliye fell asleep and didn’t know the twins went downstairs. Just over an hour later she woke to the sound of fire alarms and her mother’s screams.
By that time, the upstairs was already filled with dense smoke, and the fire had swept down the hallway and reached Elliye’s room. Behind a closed door, the room where Watson and Miles had slept was completely ablaze.
Tiffany tried to get upstairs but couldn’t take even one step up the burning staircase. She then ran outside and put the twins safely in her car. Tiffany tried to get into the house again briefly but was blinded and choked by the billowing smoke and flames. Running back to her car, she repeatedly blew the horn and shouted for the children upstairs to jump out a window. There was nothing else she could do.
Within minutes, the nearest neighbor ran out to tell Tiffany that Elliye and Miles were at his house. That left just Watson unaccounted for, but his situation seemed hopeless as fire gutted the house.
The first volunteer firefighter on the scene was Tiffany’s cousin. Alone and dressed in street clothes, he threw a ladder up against the house outside Watson’s bedroom. When he broke the window flames exploded outward, almost knocked him to the ground. Next he tried the front entrance but withdrew immediately.
At that point, trucks arrived from the first of six fire companies to answer the call, and the effort to extinguish the fire began. Water was concentrated on Watson’s room, but it was already too late.
How Elliye saved Miles
Elliye remembers waking up and seeing fire all around her.
“My first instinct was to get to the boys’ room because I saw Miles go in there, but I didn’t see the twins leave,” Ellie related. “But when I opened their door, a wall of fire pushed me back. I knew there was no way I could get into that room.”
Elliye sustained most of her burns from that one searing blast. She then turned and crawled through advancing smoke and flame to Miles’ room at the end of the hall. It had the closest window she could still get to.
“When I got there, Miles’ room was not on fire yet, but the fire surrounded it,” Elliye explained. “So, I had to through the fire again to get in. I was surprised that Miles was in there, because I thought he was in the boys’ room.”
When Elliye reached Miles, he lay unconscious on his bed.
“I had to smack him multiple times in the face to wake him up,” Elliye said. “I guess he was passing out from the smoke.”
Miles had a loft bed, which was parallel to the window. Elliye knew she and her brother had only seconds to live. She had to knock out that window. Then they would have to jump 28 feet to the frozen, snow-covered ground below.
“I laid back on the bed, pulled my arms straight out and kicked out the window,” Elliye described. “Luckily, it all fell out—so we had a wide-open window to jump through.”
Elliye’s kick, aimed at the center of the window where the two side-by-side panes met, didn’t just break the glass—it knocked out the entire window. But despite the fire rushing toward them, Miles was hesitant to jump.
“I said, ‘We’re jumping through that window. If we don’t jump, we’re gonna die,’” recounted Elliye. “I had to make him jump first because I know how this kid acts. If I went first, he might second-guess himself and not go through. But he didn’t hesitate. He just jumped out. As soon as he did, I looked behind me and saw the fire spreading farther and farther into the room. And right after that I jumped.”
“When I jumped, I laid all the way out flat, with my body spread out… I think I saw it in a movie or something,” added Elliye. “Then I landed on my feet and rolled.”
Miraculously, both Elliye and Miles were totally unhurt from the two-story fall. No broken bones, no cuts, not even any scrapes or bruises. But now the badly burned pair, wearing almost no clothes and with nothing on their feet, had to struggle through deep snow to a neighbor’s house. It was a frigid night with high winds.
Elliye remembers hearing her mother crying out as they walked: “She might have yelled my name or Miles’s, or Watson’s, I’m not sure. We were already halfway to the neighbor’s house, so it was better to just keep going that way.”
The neighbor’s front door wasn’t shoveled out, so they pushed their way around to the back. Elliye banged on the back door and the neighbor quickly let them in. He covered them with blankets and then ran to get Tiffany, while his wife called 911.
“After that I just remember being in pain and telling my mom that it hurt,” Elliye said. “Then they took us in the ambulance. They gave me an IV and I don’t remember much after that.”
How Miles tried to save Watson
During the weeks Miles and Elliye were unconscious, Tiffany and Josh tried to piece together what happened in the fire. Once Elliye came around, they learned how she had saved Miles, and how she’d been burned trying to save Watson. But it wasn’t until Miles woke up that his heroic story was fully known, and the extent of his burns explained.
Everything that happened to Miles and Elliye in the fire must have taken place in under two minutes. Miles woke up surrounded by so much fire that he couldn’t get his baby brother out of the crib just a few feet away. Already burned, he ran through fire to the bathroom, trying to get water to put out the fire around Watson. When that failed, he went back through the fire again trying to reach Watson. Only then did he retreat to his bedroom, closing the door behind him as he’d learned in a fire safety lesson at school.
Miles remembered: “I tried to save my little brother. I was in his room sleeping when I heard the fire alarm going off a lot. I woke up and the room was on fire. I tried to go through the fire four or five times to get him. But I couldn’t. Then I laid down in my bed and said, ‘I’m gonna die.’ And when Elliye woke me up, I was glad.”
Their doctors at UPMC Mercy Regional Burn Center didn’t want Miles and Elliye to know that Watson had died in the fire. But Tiffany and Josh couldn’t hide the truth.
“Whenever they did tell me, all I said was, ‘I know,’” reported Elliye.
But Miles still had hope: “When I first woke up, I said, ‘Call Watson!’ I wanted to call my little brother. And my mom and dad couldn’t handle it anymore. They couldn’t lie to me. And when they told me, I didn’t shut down. It was very sad for me to know. But if he was alive, he would say, ‘Miles, move on.’ He would.”
“We have our moments, we have our days, we have our weeks where it’s just bad,” acknowledges Josh. “Obviously, it’s hard. But we keep pushing forward the best we can because of the fact that we have to keep on living.”
Healing at Camp Susquehanna
A program of the Burn Prevention Network, Camp Susquehanna is a statewide sleepaway camp and year-round online connection for burn survivors ages 7-17. Knowing it would support their physical and emotional healing, the staff at UPMC Mercy Burn Center talked up Camp Susquehanna to Elliye and Miles.
“One day when they were doing therapy with me, they showed me the flyers and explained to me what Camp Susquehanna was,” Elliye stated. “And they were like, ‘You guys better go to this once you are out of here!’ And I was like, ‘Okay…’ But then obviously it actually happened, and it was great!”
Elliye continued: “Camp Susquehanna was really awesome. I don’t know if there are really words to explain the joy and the atmosphere there. Because, when you explain anything with your burns to people in the outside world who have never experienced something like this, most of the time they just freak out. It’s hard for them to understand. But at camp, they all understand. You’re talking to other people who have dealt with the exact same thing. It’s nice to have relatable people.
“One of my favorite things we did was to write letters to the people we lost. Then we had a ceremony in the gym there, and we could either keep our letters or put them in a bin. It helped us to let go and move on, you know?
“Also, there were lots of very fun activities, and I got to experience lots of new things. I got to go paddleboarding. I got to go tubing behind a boat. I attempted to climb a rock wall; I got halfway, then it got scary.
“And all the counselors and counselors in training are so nice. Everybody’s just so welcoming there. Even though it was my first year, I felt like I’d always known these people,” Elliye concluded.
“I liked to go swimming—that was my favorite thing,” laughs Miles. “I liked starting out in the shallow end so I could walk first and then swim. And I made a lot of friends while I was there.”
Josh’s observations about Camp Susquehanna
Josh is equally enthusiastic about Camp Susquehanna: “Tiffany and I were initially very hesitant about sending the kids to camp. Because since the fire, they’d been with us 24×7. We had a lot of concerns about Miles’ medical care. And just a lot of ‘what-ifs.’ Maybe it just wouldn’t be that well managed, and they might get hurt. Plus, we’d be seven hours’ drive away if something happened.
“Also, I was concerned about psychological stress. Knowing the severity of their burns and scarring, and how cruel people can be.
“But our minds were really put at ease by the staff. Especially once they got there. The regular communication, the photos they shared… So much so that it didn’t even feel like five days they were gone.
“To a parent of a young burn survivor, I would say don’t hesitate to send your child there. When Elliye and Miles came home, they were talking about how at camp they felt normal. They could just be kids. Seeing them so comfortable and having fun with other kids… It was such a joyful experience for them. I would send them back there every day of the week.
“As soon as we picked them up from camp, they started asking us, ‘When do we get to go back there?’” validates Josh. “If they are invited next year, they will be going back in 2024.”