Kamilah Kashanie (KK): At the beginning of this season, we told you we’d be bringing you stories of bravery, from folks who had the boldness to go all out and work toward something much bigger than themselves.
For our last episode, a story of courage from three different perspectives.
Paula Smith Bull: (PS): I was the only one downstairs and the carbon monoxide had overtaken the house.
Derek Bart (DB): I looked across the hallway and in a bathtub, I see this young girl —
Myeshia Oates (MO): Out of all the thousands of people throughout your career, you still thought about me.
KK: It’s the StoryCorps Podcast from NPR. I’m Kamilah Kashanie.
KK: To help get us started on this one, I sat down with my friend Courtney Gilbert.
KK: How many interviews did you facilitate with StoryCorps while you were with us?
Courtney Gilbert (CG): Something north of 300.
KK: Dang, dude!
KK: So typically, when folks record with StoryCorps, they have a facilitator there. Someone who walks them through the process, answers questions, makes sure they sound good. They essentially “facilitate” the whole experience.
Courtney worked on our Mobile tour, which is basically a traveling recording booth. At the beginning of 2020, it was parked in Santa Monica, California. That’s when Los Angeles County firefighter Derek Bart stepped into the booth.
CG: It was the last appointment of the day and it was a solo.
KK: A solo means the person comes alone. In Derek’s case, his interview partner had to cancel. So Courtney stepped in to interview him.
CG: It really tasks you to be present and super vulnerable with someone you literally just met. He was like visibly nervous. And, ‘yeah, not sure what I’m getting myself into, but I’m going to try it.’ And what he started to do when we were checking him in was tell us what he wanted to talk about. And we’re like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, hey. You’re telling this story before we record it like, come on in here. Get set up.’
KK: Derek spent 33 years in the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and he was starting to think about retiring. So he had a lot of stories. About his work, his colleagues, the moments that stuck with him. And towards the end of his interview, Courtney asked Derek one last thing.
CG: He took the question and he took his time with it. And that’s when I started to feel like something bigger was happening.
KK: Here’s that moment from their 2020 recording.
CG: With the time left that we have here, Derek, I would like for you to just describe the ways that you would like to be remembered.
Derek Bart (DB): That’s kind of a hard question that you asked me today because, you know, actually I just found out today that I might have pancreatic cancer.
DB: But I’m hopeful and hopefully it’s not. You know, fire service, you know, cancer is a part of what we get, you know, unfortunately. And, um, I’m still kind of processing —
DB: – this today.
KK: That was the first time that Derek had told anyone about his diagnosis.
CG: It felt like the air got sucked out of the room. I remember just being like, should we stop. And him looking at me like, ‘I want to do this, I want to continue. I want to get this on the record.’
And we were crying, and I remember holding his hand. And I still really didn’t have the words. Like, what do you say, you know? Although he was positive and mostly happy and happy to share, his recording was about his grief. And him mourning the loss of a lot of things: mourning retiring, mourning his own death, you know, while still being here. Trying to remember and just trying to kind of hold on for what seemed like the last time. And that’s something that I had never, ever, ever experienced. And he was just like, ‘I’m going to be OK. Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad for me. You all have a great evening. Like trying to console us, honestly.
CG: And then he headed out. And I’ll never forget that watching him walk away just kind of slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night. There was already a chill in the air, and there was a little bit of a chill on my spine. I was just like, ‘Oh.’
KK: This is it.
CG: This is it, you know. And he knows it, too.
KK: After that night, Courtney thought about Derek a lot. A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. So Derek’s interview was one of the last ones that Courtney did in person. And a lot of what he talked about that day stayed with her. Including this story.
CG: He starts talking about how he remembers saving a little girl, Myeshia, and then meeting her years later.
KK: Myeshia was an 8-year-old girl that he’d rescued from a house fire back in 1993. Here’s that moment from his recording.
Derek Bart (DB): It was a cold, windy night and the wind knocked the power out, and so they were using candles to see. And they went to bed.
When we got there, the room I went to was fully involved with the fire. So, OK, if anybody’s in here, they’re unsurvivable. But, I checked the next bedroom, which had bunk beds. So, ‘OK, children. Kids like to hide in the closet. They hide under the beds. They hide in the bathtub.’ So, I looked across the hallway and in a bathtub, I see this young girl. Her name is Myeshia. And I noticed that her face and hands are burned.
So, I ran there, I grab her, throw her over my shoulders, go downstairs. And it’s one of those scenes where you just say, ‘God, you know, please get me out of here.’ You know, it’s horrible. I considered going to the hospital, but it was too emotional. So, I didn’t go. But for years, I always wondered how Myeshia was.
Well, 12 years later, I found myself in Walmart, and this girl walks by me. Her face and hands had obviously been burned. She has a name tag that says, ‘Myeshia.’ She says, ‘Hi, how may I help you?’ I say, ‘If I get too personal, please stop me. But, February, 1993, I went on a fire and I pulled out a little girl.’ And she starts crying and I’m crying. And she says, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’
KK: We’ll meet Myeshia, after a short break. And we’ll share an update to Derek’s story that gave Courtney this reaction.
CG: And then —
KK: Dun dun dun! [Laughs]
CG: The shock of my life, right? [Laughs]
KK: Stay with us.
KK: So far this episode, we’ve heard a lot from the man who saved Myeshia nearly 30 years ago. But we haven’t heard from Myeshia, or the woman who was there for her every day since.
Myeshia’s mother, Paula Smith Bull, was also in the house that night. And when the fire broke out upstairs, she tried to save her family before the firefighters got there. Here’s Paula and Myeshia talking about what happened next.
Paula Smith Bull (PS): I was the only one downstairs and the carbon monoxide had overtaken the house. I ran upstairs, I got my sisters’ two sons. And when I went to try to get you, the fire department wouldn’t allow me to go back into the home. You know, there was two that didn’t make it. My sister, and my three year old nephew. But Derek brought you out of the home and we went to the burn unit. It seemed like an eternity waiting to get some type of news. They told me it didn’t look good because you were burned more internally than you was externally. Watching you fight, being strong enough to withstand everything that the doctors had written off, it was the hardest 30 days of my life. You woke up in the hospital. Do you remember recovering from any of your injuries?
Myeshia Oates (MO): I had no idea what was going on.
PS: When you came home, you had a lot of special garments to pull the skin together. You had it on your arms, over your chest and your back and your shoulder, and you had a face guard. And at eight years old, those would be the items you would have to go to school in. Where did you find the strength to move forward as a child?
MO: You pushed me to make me understand I’m no different than anybody else. And it definitely helped me to look at life totally different, as far as being grateful for being able to still be here.
PS: Your sad times, your joys, we’ve done it together. Nothing and nobody will come between that love that I share with you and for you.
MO: Well, mom, you are definitely the reason why I try to remain so positive. We’ve definitely had our ups and downs for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing that I would change. And I couldn’t ask for a better mom.
PS: Thank you, and hopefully someone who’s going through a hard time, or a tragedy will know that there is hope at the end of it. You can fall, but just don’t stay there.
KK: So this brings us back to the beginning of this story, when firefighter Derek Bart was going through a hard time. Remember that cancer diagnosis? Well, about a week after his StoryCorps interview, Derek actually found out he’d been misdiagnosed. And he was gonna live.
So he decided to have another StoryCorps conversation, with the person who helped him through that dark period: Myeshia. The woman he carried out of a burning building 30 years ago.
Myeshia Oates (MO): Out of all the thousands of people throughout your career, you still thought about me. I was just curious to know, like, why me?
DB: In the fire service, you see a lot of tragedy. And the people that are alive today, you always think about ‘em. And you always want to know if they’re OK.
MO: You know, of course, I had some health issues, but I’m OK.
DB: You know, the image I have of you was somebody that was just determined to fight, to make it. I want you to know that you’ve carried me through some tough times. For that, I’m forever grateful.
MO: I appreciate being able to be a part of that.
MO: It amazes me. Just to know that the memory from 30 years ago is still with you, and that means a lot.
DB: You know, it was a brief moment that you and I had our encounter back in 1993, but I hope you always remember how valued you are, and that people care about you.
MO: I thank you and I thank God every day. I cherish this.
KK: That was Myeshia Oates talking with Los Angeles County firefighter, Derek Bart. Derek is retiring after 33 years of service in February of this year. And Myeshia, and her mother, Paula, will be there at his party.
That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast. It was produced by Jarrod Sport and edited by Jasmyn Morris, who’s our Executive Editor. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also composed our theme song. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to Courtney Gilbert, Ava Ahmadbeigi, Jerome Nelson, Michael Garofalo and Eleanor Vassili.
To see what music we used in the episode, go to StoryCorps – dot – org. You can also check out original artwork created by Lyne Lucien. For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next season.