Shelby Carter of Wyoming, Illinois, was a focused student with a reserved demeanor in high school and “very, very smart,” according to her lifelong friend, Anna Steelman. “I think people underestimated that about her because she was quiet and she wasn’t one to make herself the center of attention,” said Anna, who was also Shelby’s teammate on the Stark County High School basketball team.
“She stayed back in the crowd and did her work and got stuff done on the [basketball] court and in the classroom. She was very task-oriented,” Anna recalled. But, according to friends, there was another side to Shelby. When she stepped onto the basketball court to play center, she became a “feisty” competitor.
No one really knew just how fierce she was until years after graduation, though. At 20 years old, Shelby became a mother to a beautiful little girl who she named Keana Davis. Unwed and without a home of her own, things weren’t perfect, but Shelby seemed glad to be a mom.
“Her 21st birthday was yesterday and on Facebook, she had posted, you know, ‘What a great birthday!’” Shelby’s cousin, Shawna Burwell, recalled. “This morning on Snapchat, I seen, ‘loving these mommy moments,’ and she had the baby laying on her chest.”
Shelby, who worked as a nail technician, was engaged to Keana’s dad and going back to school at MidState to be a Pharmacy Technician while living with her mother, Kathy Hardy, in their close-knit town. Kathy posted a photo on Facebook of her infant granddaughter at the hospital with the words “Beautiful Miracle,” and Shelby’s aunt, Deb Carter Burwell, said, “Shelby was a fantastic mom and proud of her baby girl.”
Indeed, all was well — but only for a brief period of time. Just days after her daughter’s birth, the new mom was alone with her 10-day-old infant on a Monday morning when their home was engulfed in flames. After a wall of fire and smoke tore through the upstairs bedroom of the wood-frame house, firefighters began battling the blaze, but it was too late.
When rescuers made their way inside to the bedroom, they found Shelby Carter’s body. The young mother had died of carbon monoxide intoxication from smoke inhalation. Her newborn daughter wasn’t with her, however.
Instead, Keana’s car seat was found resting on top of a pile of debris with the newborn strapped inside after her mother made a gut-wrenching and heroic decision — one that was likely her last.
The fire had spread quickly, and in just a few short moments, the house was filled with dangerous smoke with no way to escape. After realizing the house was engulfed in flames, Shelby strapped Keana in her car seat, smashed a window, and tossed the child from the second-story in an effort to save her baby’s life.
Investigators believe it was only a matter of seconds or a couple of minutes at most from the time Shelby Carter realized her home was on fire and the moment she made the decision to save her child while she seemingly knew she was going to die. What is certain is that her quick thinking saved Keana’s life.
Miraculously, Keana escaped serious injury, only suffering a minor burn — thanks to her mother, Shelby Carter. The newborn was taken to the hospital in good condition and later released to her grieving father.
“It’s just incredible that she was able to pull her thoughts together to save her baby,” said Ed Foglesonger, chief of the Wyoming-Speer Fire Protection District. “It’s just too bad she couldn’t save herself, but I’d say it’s nothing short of a miracle the way it ended up.”
Shelby Carter’s death was a painful blow to her small town, but her loved ones take comfort in knowing her final act was a heroic one. No one who knew her, however, was surprised that she lost her life saving her child. Shelby was a strong woman with an inherently protective personality and a passion for children. Taking care of kids came naturally to her, according to family and friends. “She loved every child she came in contact with and they loved her,” her obituary said.
“Her greatest moment was becoming a mom,” her online memorial added, and Shelby performed that role impeccably and admirably. With her last breath, Shelby Carter laid down her life for her daughter and gave the world a perfect example of a mother’s love that is both incredibly sad and very heartwarming. She was determined to protect her child, even if it meant sacrificing herself.