FRANKFORT — Grief still grips Irv and Cathy Bailey after losing two grandsons in a Christmas morning fire that destroyed the Baileys' Louisville home. But the philanthropist couple has shifted into activist mode to stress the importance of fire safety.
"You can either surrender to it or use it as a way for better things to happen," Irv Bailey said at the state Capitol Wednesday.
The Baileys appeared on the Senate floor as state Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, introduced a resolution adjourning the chamber in memory of Solon L. Bailey, 12, and William T. "Liam" Bailey, 10.
The two boys, who were visiting with their parents from Vermont, couldn't escape the fast-moving fire that engulfed the Baileys' home at about 4:30 a.m. on Christmas.
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"It was like an explosion that happened in our home — very, very massive," said Cathy Bailey, a prominent Republican fund-raiser who served as U.S. ambassador to Latvia from 2005 to 2008.
The fire started between two floors of the house, she said.
"The cause of the fire is still not determined," she said. "And will we ever know the cause? Maybe not."
The Baileys' bedroom, as well as the guest bedroom where the boys' parents were sleeping, was on the main floor. Irv Bailey's younger son, who is 27, was sleeping on the floor below, and Solon and Liam were asleep in a converted study on the second floor close to where the fire broke out, Cathy Bailey said.
Firefighters later said the family had just two to three minutes to escape, she said.
Irv was first to hear the alarm.
"I probably would have slept through it," Cathy Bailey said. "It was Christmas Eve. I had stayed up to do stocking stuffers for the boys and went to bed. Irv really saved the rest of the members in that family because he heard the alarm."
When he emerged from their bedroom, Irv Bailey said his first instinct was to fight the fire.
"So I was looking for a hose or something," he said. "It was crazy because there was nothing anybody could do."
The five adults made their way through the disorienting haze of thick smoke, which sent Irv and Cathy to the University of Louisville Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Now, the Baileys say they hope to raise awareness about fire prevention.
"Whether there's a fire in a trailer park or on a floor of a hotel room, it just crosses all economic barriers," Cathy Bailey said. "We just need people out there coming together to work on various measures of prevention."
They have yet to decide the best way to get that message out, whether through a public campaign or foundation, for instance. But Cathy Bailey said whatever avenue they choose it will stress the importance of preparation: having and knowing how to use fire extinguishers, having rope ladders for second floor rooms and regularly checking detectors.
Since the fire, the Baileys said they have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from people across Kentucky and the globe. Letters and cards from friends and well-wishers they don't even know fill two filing cabinets, Cathy Bailey said. She said she later found out that on Christmas night, people in Montreal lit candles in the boys' memories.
The Solon and Liam Fund, created in memorial, has collected more than $100,000 so far. The boys' parents will decide how to direct that money for good causes, the Baileys said.
"You can't really get over it," Cathy Bailey said of the tragedy. "You have to learn how to survive through it."