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Towson graduation reunites fire victim and her rescuer

Jacqueline Miller, 24, will graduate from Towson University this week -- nearly 20 years after she was badly burned during a house fire. Though she lost her hands in the fire, she became a writer. One of the people who helped rescue her from the fire -- a gang-banger turned nonprofit leader -- will award Miller her degree.

When Ted Sutton closed his eyes and thought about Jacqueline Miller, a heartbreaking image would form in his mind.

He'd see the beautiful little 5-year-old girl outside a burning Baltimore City rowhouse. Wearing only a nightgown, with braids crowning her head, she was so badly burned that her skin was already loosening like wet paper.

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An ambulance whisked the girl and other victims of the 1996 fire on Biddle Street to the hospital. Someone bandaged the hand Sutton burned while helping rescue people from the fire.

Did the little girl survive? Was she happy?

"I'm like, 'What happened to everybody?'" Sutton said. "I had so many unanswered questions."

On Wednesday his eyes beheld a new vision of Jacqueline Miller: A confident, smiling 24-year-old young woman, wearing a cap and gown to receive her bachelor's degree from Towson University.

"This is like a dream come true," Sutton said. "I never would have imagined in a million years the interaction we had that day would lead to where we are today."

Miller suffered third-degree burns over more than 90 percent of her body and lost both of her hands. She she uses a wheelchair to get around.

But determined and focused, she was the first member of her family to graduate from high school when she earned her diploma from the city's then-Doris M. Johnson High School with perfect attendance.

Now she's the first to graduate from college, too, earning a degree in English with a minor in communication studies. She's making plans for a relaxing summer and considering job prospects. She's thinking about going to graduate school to study social work.

"I always knew I was going to college, but I didn't think I was going to finish," Miller said.

It took her six years. She struggled at times and had to take time off when she was sick. She passed her last exam Monday.

"I was so happy," she said. "No more finals!"

When Miller's turn came at Towson's College of Liberal Arts graduation on Wednesday at SECU Arena, university officials had a surprise for her. They called Sutton to the stage.

When he read her name — "the most beautiful-est person that I've ever met, Jacqueline Tiffany Miller" -— the audience roared.

Miller was stunned.

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"I wanted to cry, but I didn't want to cry in front of all these people," she said.

It took intense focus and a fighting spirit for Miller to make her way from the burned-out rowhouse to the commencement exercises on Wednesday.

She was staying with her baby brother and mother at a friend's home on Biddle Street in January 1996. Miller remembers nothing of the day.

Fire officials said another child in the home accidentally set a chair on fire. When an adult tried to get the chair out of the house, the fire grew.

Nine people were inside the home.

Sutton was making his way to work at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He was in the early stages of trying to turn his life around. At 25, he had spent much of his young life in gangs. His godfather and two buddies had been sent to prison. Another friend had been paralyzed.

He said he pledged his life to God in a courthouse bathroom and got a legitimate job. The day of the fire, he was driving a new route to Kennedy Krieger, a shortcut recommended by a cabdriver he had met the day before.

As he turned on Biddle Street, "I saw fire shoot out of a doorway and come back in," Sutton said.

He did a double take. Then he acted, helping rescue people until firefighters arrived.

Of the nine people in the home — three adults and six children — only four survived, including Miller, her baby brother, Delvon, and two adults.

Jacqueline's 21-year-old mother, also named Jacqueline, hung on in the hospital for more than two weeks before succumbing to her injuries.

Sutton won accolades for his bravery — including a plaque from then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke — but he was haunted by the fire. He criticized himself for not doing more, for not getting more people out.

Miller, meanwhile, began her long journey to recovery. She spent nearly two years in the hospital and went to live with her grandmother, Patricia McKnight, who had promised her daughter she would raise the children.

Miller's brother Delvon fared better than she did. His mother had tossed him from a window, McKnight said, and he suffered broken bones. But he recovered, played sports and graduated from Mervo High School two years ago.

Miller said she has never felt sorry for herself. Her grandmother never gave her special treatment. She always expected her to go to class and get her work done.

"She never babied me," Miller said.

And whenever doctors suggested Miller might not be able to do something, Miller's grandmother had her own answer: "You're wrong."

McKnight said she never had to worry about Miller.

"She's very independent. She's very stubborn. She's very determined," McKnight said. "I say the word 'can't' is not in her vocabulary."

The steely will of both grandmother and granddaughter came at a price. Miller said she keeps her feelings bottled up inside. She's not one to burden others with her fears, her worries, her pain.

"I kind of put on a front: 'I'm OK. I'm OK.' But it's not OK what happened," she said.

She found her outlet in writing.

At first, after the fire, Miller couldn't write at all. She was frustrated by prosthetic devices she was given and by having to enlist others to write things down for her.

So she practiced and practiced, and by the time Miller was 8 or 9, she figured out how to hold a pen between her forearms so she could write on her own.

She wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

"I just started writing down my feelings. It was a way to get everything out," Miller said.

She favors creative nonfiction and poetry. She keeps most of her writing for herself, but she joined Towson's literary magazine, Grub Street, this year.

Yet even as she found writing to be therapeutic, Miller still had questions about the fire all those years ago. She had read newspaper clippings, and saw Ted Sutton's name as one of the rescuers. She tracked him down on Facebook and sent a long message.

He didn't respond.

About a year ago, Miller tried again with a simpler message: Are you the man who saved my life?

This time, Sutton saw the message. He was dumbfounded.

He'd wondered about Miller for so many years. They quickly connected and met at Sutton's church.

Miller wanted to thank him.

"I said, 'No, sweetie. I got to thank you. You proved to me one man can make a difference,'" Sutton said.

Stepping in harm's way at the fire in 1996 had been a catalyst for Sutton. He realized his future could be even better than holding down a job and keeping on the right side of the law.

He began to counsel young people to stay out of gangs, helping them earn their high school diplomas and providing after-school programs. He earned multiple college degrees and now does motivational speaking and runs the nonprofit Sutton House in Baltimore, which focuses on youth and community development.

After reconnecting with Miller — and seeing how successful she has become — Sutton said his doubts about whether he had done enough that winter day in 1996 drifted away.

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"To have seen the difference we've made for each other, there is such a connection," he said. "It almost brings me to tears. It melts my heart to see what she's overcome."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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