'Burned out' takes on new meaning for two local college students

DeWayne Bartels
This is what is left of the apartment building that caught fire while Brittany Nichting, of Dunlap, and David Beck, of East Peoria, were inside.

Brittany Nichting and David Beck were not scheduled to start classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for a week. It was Aug. 17.

Yet, just after that day began, Nichting and Beck, her boyfriend, said they received  lessons in the value of life and faith.

Narrow escape

Nichting, 19, of Dunlap — daughter of Peoria City Treasurer Patrick Nichting — and Beck, 19, of East Peoria, were asleep in Beck’s campus apartment.

It was just after midnight when Nichting suddenly awoke.

“I smelled smoke. I looked out the window. Everything was orange. The siding was on fire. Stuff, in flames, was falling off the roof,” she said.

She tried to wake Beck. He would not wake up.

“I pulled the mattress off the bed. He said, ‘What’s going on?’ At that moment a police officer kicked in the front door,” Nichting said.

Beck was still groggy, but he said his alertness snapped in quickly when he heard SIUE Campus Police officer Dan Murphy, yell, “Fire, fire.”

Nichting said as they got to the front door of the apartment on the second floor of the building they saw nothing but a sheet of flames. She hesitated going forward, but looking back she saw the ceiling collapsing. There was no turning back.

“There was black smoke and flames everywhere. We couldn’t see,” Nichting said.

The trio felt their way down the stairs through the smoke.

“As soon as we got to the bottom of the stairs, the staircase collapsed,” Nichting said.

They were closer to safety but still had to go down a hallway with flames licking the walls on both sides.

“We got out the door and the whole roof collapsed,” Nichting said.

SIUE Police Chief Gina Hays said Murphy, 50, was on patrol when the lightning struck Beck’s building earlier in the evening. But, at that time, he thought it had hit a tree nearby.

Hays said, while there is no official cause listed yet, the fire department believes a small fire smoldered in the building until enough heat built up to start the fire.

“By the time Murphy got there the flames were 30 feet above the trees in the area,” Hays said. 

“He told me he went through the building, knocking. He went to Beck’s apartment and knocked with no response. Then he went across the hall. He told me stuff was raining down on him. He wanted to leave. But, he said, something just told him to go back to Beck’s apartment one more time.”

Hays said this morning she had just returned from the fire scene. She said it appears the lightning struck right above Beck’s apartment.

“David’s apartment is the worst. There’s nothing left there,” she said.

Calling home

Nichting tried to call her parents. They both had their cell phones turned off. She called her sister Jamie.

“Jamie thought it was a joke. She said, ‘Send me some photos,’ and hung up. I called my other sister Kristen,” Nichting said. “She told mom and dad.”

Clara Beck, David’s mother, was sound asleep when the call came to her husband, also named David. Beck sent his parents a cell-phone picture. But, it took awhile for the seriousness of the fire and situation to sink in.

When it did the Beck’s jumped in their car for the more than two-hour trip south.

“We were so nervous,” Clara said. “When we finally got there I suddenly realized I was still in my pajamas.”


The pair of students said they have no idea how the fire started. The building had been struck by lightning earlier in the day, and was without power. Without power, the hard-wired smoke alarms had not gone off.

“I’d like to think God woke me up. There was smoke and flames, yet we were not injured. We made it out without making any wrong turns. It was like there was a cloud of safety all around us,” Nichting said.

“I would not have made it out without my guardian angel and God watching over us.”

Beck added, “Brittany has a good nose. It’s a combination of luck and God helping us get out of there. If she hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have woken up.”

 Nichting said Thursday night her relationship with God is much stronger now.

“I value life more, now,” she said.

Nichting lost her cell phone and memory cards with five years worth of photos and some other items she was storing in Beck’s apartment until she moved into her own apartment on campus.

Beck, however, lost everything — computer, clothes, his high school memorabilia from playing on the East Peoria High School football, baseball and wrestling teams. He lost all his electronics — Wii, Game Cube and games — he had worked to buy himself.

“The value of family and my girlfriend is what I appreciate now. Material things aren’t important,” he said.

“I know I had a lot of money tied up in electronics. If I want to replace that stuff, I’ll just have to work harder to replace it.”

When Doug Martin, Beck’s former football coach at East Peoria High School, heard he lost all his old high school sweats, shorts and T-shirts, he stepped up.

“Coach said when he put in his order for that stuff he was going to add extras for me,” Beck said. “He said, he’s going to send me a care package.”

Thankful mothers

Brittany’s mother, Dawn, was able to laugh Thursday evening.

“Last year Brittany had a terrible move-in experience at school. We had told her before this happened it would be better this year,” she said, laughing. “What do we know?”

But, her tone turned serious quickly.

“I think Brittany and David learned a valuable lesson in that no matter what life throws at them they can handle it.”

Clara Beck said she considers herself very fortunate.

“It was definitely God’s hand that led them out,” she said. “David was upset his father and I had to spend so much money getting him things for school again. I told him it was a blessing to do it. We could have been paying for a funeral.”