Andrew Dys

Pregnant fire victim: Woman charged with arson, attempted murder ‘could have killed somebody’

Pregnant, terrified, the decision for Mandi Coley was simple – jump or die.

Coley, 20, with a daughter not yet born who she already loves more than life itself, chose to jump from a second-floor landing to escape a fire at her Rock Hill apartment building July 2.

She survived; the baby, too. And now, a week later, police say a neighbor she knew, Suyatta Johnson, intentionally set the fire in an attempt to kill Johnson’s boyfriend.

Now that Johnson has been charged by police, Coley said she is happy and believes Johnson “deserves what she gets.”

“She could have killed somebody,” Coley said Tuesday morning, just hours after Johnson was arrested. “It could have been me, my baby, my boyfriend, any of us in that building.”

Coley also wants to make sure Johnson, whom she saw frequently in the building and was friendly with in passing, can’t hurt anyone else pending a trial.

“She deserves to be charged; she deserves to be in jail,” Coley said. “She doesn’t deserve a bond. She could have hurt so many people.”

Or worse.

The fire gutted the building and forced Coley, her boyfriend, and two others to make that decision to leap from the second floor. More than 20 others rushed down the stairs or out smoke-filled windows to escape. Police officers who raced to the scene helped people escape the fire, risking their own safety to rush up stairs, through hallways, to find people.

Coley said trying to smile is the only way she has been able to deal with what happened. After a sleepless first night after the fire, Coley said she has tried to adjust to living in a motel while trying to find a permanent home and working full time at the Bojangles’ restaurant on East Main Street in Rock Hill.

“The only way is to be thankful that we are alive,” Coley said. “I try to smile.”

The baby, whom she plans to name Ja’Leah Shanell after the September birth, is “kicking all the time,” she said. Coley said her courageous boyfriend, Samuel White, who she said caught her when she jumped after he had jumped, is also fine.

Since the fire, Coley and her boyfriend, along with 23 other people, have had to live in motels. She has almost no clothes, no furniture, no home. All she has is her little family and life.

“My job is helping a lot,” Coley said. “People have been great.”

Another of the fire victims was pregnant, with four children under age 9, said Doris Odom, the victim’s grandmother.

“I couldn’t believe someone would set a fire like that, risk all those lives,” Odom said. “It is terrible. People could have been hurt in that fire, they could have died in that fire. Babies, children, mothers and fathers.”

Odom said her granddaughter lost everything and the family still is unsure what the future will hold. Like so many displaced people, her granddaughter has had to move from one motel to another after Red Cross assistance money for victims ran out.

“This fire took everything from people, all they have,” Doris Odom. “What they have left is life.”

Coley, that 20-year-old pregnant lady who still smiles, has her life and the life of her unborn daughter. All that could have been taken by what police now say was a willful, purposeful act. This is a young person who wants to be a veterinarian.

To watch her at work is to watch someone who will not let a fire eat her alive. She smiles with customers and co-workers and everyone she meets.

Coley earned that smile and she gives it back to a world that needs one.

The charge against Johnson, the alleged arsonist, lists Johnson’s boyfriend as the victim of the alleged crimes. He was the target, police say.

Johnson herself admitted Tuesday in court that another man, the father of one of her five children, was the victim three years ago. That time she set his clothes on fire.

The indictment from last week’s fire, read in court Tuesday when a judge denied Johnson bond, said Johnson stood over her boyfriend, watched him, after she set the comforter on fire. The boyfriend was under the comforter, police allege.

Johnson watched him wake up screaming in pain.

The fire spread to the rest of the building.

The indictment makes no mention of the anguish, the terror, the fright of the rest of the people in Building 862.

The reality, say these other people who were forced to flee, or jump, in chaos and terror, is that all are victims.

Johnson, the accused arsonist and would-be killer, said in court Tuesday that she wanted to apologize to all the families, and pray for their safety.

Where were the prayers July 2, when flames burned down a building filled with 25 people: kids, moms and future moms and fathers, people who dream and go to work and laugh?

People who, through courage and guts and the help of the cops and firemen, did not perish.

Tuesday’s apology was too late for Coley, a working, soon-to-be-mother who is doing her best in her life.

“All of us, we could have been killed,” Coley said.

Tuesday, Suyatta Johnson went to jail – possibly forever.

Mandi Coley, she smiled again and went back to work.