By Matt Ward
“It was a living nightmare.”
Two years after a deadly house fire took the lives of three young boys and a Pahrump woman, the fire’s lone survivor, mother of the youngest victims, says she relives the experience every day.
Sharon Broadhead, 31, sat down with the Pahrump Valley Times for the first time this week to share her story. The two-year anniversary of the fire that killed three of her five children is on Saturday.
Zachary Broadhead, 4, Elliott Broadhead, 16 months, and Brandon Smith, 5, died along with 24-year-old Crystal Smiley, Broadhead’s girlfriend, when a house at 3421 Prospector Lane was consumed by a fast-moving fire. Investigators concluded the blaze was most likely caused by one of the young victims playing with a cigarette lighter.
Broadhead’s life was immediately turned upside down by the tragedy.
“It’s still a fresh wound,” she says.
Not only did she lose her children and her lover, for a brief time she lost her freedom. Police arrested her just days after the fire, accusing her of being a neglectful mother and causing the deaths of her children.
“I felt like a real lowlife. I was in jail. I was scared and looking over my shoulders,” she said of the experience, adding that she’d never been in trouble, save for a ticket or two, with the law before.
A judge released her after more than 48 hours in jail so that she could attend the funeral of her beloved boys, who are buried together at Grandview Cemetery. Smiley is buried there, too.
The most serious charges against Broadhead were eventually dropped, though she would plead guilty to one felony count of child abuse. She was sentenced to five years probation with the condition that if she stayed out of trouble and performed 200 hours of community service, the single charge against her would be reduced to a misdemeanor.
Her legal troubles related to the fire are by no means over — the father of two of her boys as well as his family just sued her in Clark County District Court for wrongful death SEE RELATED STORY .
Broadhead says she’s working hard to pick up the pieces of her life, though she comes across as someone whose struggle is nearly insurmountable. She has no job, no car, barely makes ends meet. She lives off food stamps and the generosity of friends and family members. She says she is trying to finish getting a diploma that she didn’t get when she was younger, though she often finds herself unable to concentrate.
“It’s hard because my mind thinks about them a lot. Instead of reading my GED book, I should be reading my kids a bedtime story,” she says.
She moved to Las Vegas for a few months, hoping that a change in scenery would help her cope better with her loss. But that didn’t work out. Now she’s back in Pahrump.
After numerous therapy sessions and psychological evaluations, Broadhead says she suffers today from a laundry list of mental health issues, ranging from anxiety and survivor’s guilt to post traumatic stress disorder and a fear of fire, none of which she had before Feb. 9, 2011.
“I didn’t even get the baby blues when my kids were born,” she says.
One of the reasons she says she wanted to tell her story to the newspaper was that she wanted to fight, to regain a semblance of a life, to show her appreciation to a community that opened its arms when her babies died and to hopefully find some catharsis, some healing.
“As much as I’m broken on the inside, I’m still tough on the outside,” she says. “I have to be tough for my family, my two girls and my mother. They can’t handle this at all by themselves.”
Even visiting her sons’ grave site is difficult, not just because of the reminder of how much she has lost, but because she barely has the means to get to the cemetery.
“I live with this every day. As much as I would like to visit them every day, I can’t. I don’t have a car and it’s too far to always walk,” she said.
Broadhead wept for much of her interview with the newspaper. Recalling that day was hard. She said during her weekly therapy sessions she was told to return to Prospector Lane, to go through the house. She said she did.
It did help, but it also created a nagging sense of second- guessing herself. She says she can’t stop thinking that she shouldn’t have jumped through her bedroom window like she did that day to escape the smoke and flames — she says a room she was painting for one of her daughters was barely touched by the fire.
“I could’ve come back through that window and handed the boys off to someone,” she says, growing emotional at the thought.
Broadhead described the fire as a wall of smoke filling her room as she and Smiley lay in bed. Smiley jumped up and ran into the bathroom. Broadhead says she lost sight of her and simply panicked, breaking her window and climbing out. When she realized she’d left her boys inside, she attempted to climb back into the window, cutting herself on broken shards of glass.
By that time neighbors had run to the home to help, flames already had burned through one layer of roofing. Broadhead ran from one side of the home to another, yelling at the neighbors, screaming that Smiley was here and the boys there. She attempted to get through another window, which was too high off the ground to climb through. Another attempt was thwarted by a good samaritan who’d rushed to her aid.
“After that I fell apart,” she says, recalling one of her boy’s limp little bodies being carried from the home by a first responder.
While grieving for her boys is one layer of sorrow, another is grieving for Smiley. Broadhead says she was in love with Smiley and that Smiley knew it.
The two had met at Lakeside Casino where they had both worked. Broadhead said she was going through a difficult divorce with her then-husband Anthony Broadhead, father to Elliott and Zachary, and the man now suing her.
“We started out as friends. And then one thing turned into another. I was going through a hard divorce. I was trying to find my own way. She helped me do everything. I felt accepted. I was. My family accepted her. My mom was happy for me. But, your happiness can be taken away from you at any time,” Broadhead said.
She regrets not being able to express her regret to Smiley’s family, some members of which have been unable to forgive her.
Asked what she would say to them, she says that she would say she’s sorry first. But also, that she cherishes her memories of Smiley, the pixies and fairies the young woman would draw for her, the easy personality, the sense of humor and the knowledge that Smiley was such a comforting soul, not just to her but to everyone.
Smiley and boys in death have often staved off utter despair during particularly hard times. Smiley’s beautiful art still makes Broadhead smile when she looks at it.
A video shot of Elliott a short time before the fire and where his brothers can be seen laughing and smiling in the background is a cherished memento, too.
Broadhead lights up when she recalls Elliott walking into her bathroom soaked in Spaghettios, and when Zachary and Brandon would play with their toy cars in the backyard, dirtying up their clothes and their cars like only little boys do.
But the pain generally comes back with a vengeance, she says. Almost anything can trigger it.
“I have a hard time when I hear babies cry, or when I go grocery shopping and I hear a child say ‘mommy.’ Your instinct is to turn around, but then you know it’s not your child. That’s another thing that’s hard,” she said.
Broadhead said she will spend some of Saturday at the cemetery, where she wants to place teddy bears next to her children’s gravestone. She’ll visit Smiley’s, too. And then she says she’ll go back to trying to pick up the pieces of a life upended in an instant.