On the phone with 911 in the wee hours of July 2, Mandi Coley had to make sure the operator knew she was not kidding about being trapped by a fire with a belly full of unborn baby.
“I was telling her that I was pregnant – seven months pregnant – and my house was on fire and I was stuck on the second floor,” Coley recalled of the day she will surely never forget. “I was up anyway. My shift started at Bojangles’ at 4:30 in the morning.”
Thankfully she was on “the biscuit shift,” because Coley was awake as the fire in Building 862 at Oak Hollow Apartments in Rock Hill roared through the building and up the stairs.
Coley and her boyfriend, Samuel White, did not know then that police would allege that their downstairs neighbor had intentionally set the fire.
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White only knew that awful dark morning in July that the stairs were blocked by smoke and fire.
The only way out – jump from the balcony.
“I jumped first after I told her that I would catch her,” White said. “I landed on my feet. I’m kind of a stuntman, anyway.”
White yelled to Coley to jump, telling her there was no other way out. He would stand right there, so she could land on top of him.
Coley jumped on top of her boyfriend. He caught her as best he could.
“I did all I could to break her fall so both her and the baby would be all right,” White said.
Coley was examined later that day by a doctor, and the unborn baby was fine – although Coley had some bumps and bruises from the fall.
The couple had lost almost everything in the fire.
The American Red Cross, the couples’ families and others donated money and gift cards, and Bojangles’ employees and customers helped too.
“People really were great, and we thank them for being so generous,” White said.
The couple moved into another apartment in the same complex. This one is on the first floor.
“No more second floor,” Coley said. “It’s higher than you think when you have to jump.”
Coley worked straight through to September, Labor Day.
“It was sure Labor Day,” she said. “I went into labor.”
Hours later, a baby girl – Ja’Leyah Shanel White – was born.
“She was just perfect,” said the mother.
“She still is perfect,” said the father.
Days after the fire, Suyatta Johnson, 28, was charged with attempted murder and arson. Police say she set her boyfriend on fire as he slept. She has been in jail without bond since.
In court the day after her arrest, Johnson apologized to all the people who could have been hurt.
Almost 30 people were displaced by the fire, which destroyed the apartment building. Some ran to safety. Cops helped others rush blindly through the smoke.
Coley tries not to think about the fire and what could have happened to her baby. She does not worry about the fate of Johnson, who could face decades in prison if convicted.
“She will get what she deserves,” Coley said.
Coley is focused now on being a mother and getting back to work soon after maternity leave. She still hopes to be a veterinarian someday.
“Right now, this beautiful little girl needs all my attention,” Coley said.
White remains angry about the fire.
“People could have died,” White said. “That day goes through my mind all the time. You don’t forget something like that.”
But because White had guts to jump, and then caught his pregnant girlfriend, Ja’Leyah is now a healthy, happy five-week-old baby.
In the words of her parents, “perfect.”