Things couldn't have been better for Ashley Mauter. A 2001 Centreville High grad, Ashley, 24, was in Charlottesville studying to become a nurse. And best of all, she'd found true love with Brett Quarterman, 25.
But a devastating fire in the early-morning hours of March 18 changed everything. It caused third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body and took the life of the man she planned to marry.
SINCE THE FIRE, Ashley's been in the Surgical Burn Intensive Care Unit at the UVA Medical Center, sedated and unconscious. And at some point after she awakens — when her parents feel she's ready to handle it — they'll have to break the news to her about Brett.
"She and Brett were dating for 10 months and were making plans to move in together and get married in a year-and-a-half," said Ashley's mom, Kathy Young, a sixth-grade teacher at Centre Ridge Elementary. "But he died in the fire and Ashley doesn't know, yet, so it's a double tragedy for her. His funeral was Saturday."
In high school, Ashley acted in Centreville's production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and in the student-directed, one-act plays. "She was a theater kid under [Director] Mark Rogers," said Young. "It was her love." (Ashley's brother Ryan, 26, also graduated from Centreville).
She later moved to Charlottesville and met Brett, a Virginia Tech graduate and civil engineer, through friends. "He encouraged her to go back to school and become a nurse, so she was attending Piedmont Valley Community College," said her mom.
"He made a major difference in her life and was the best thing that ever happened to her," continued Young. "She was his first love, too. His parents said they were so glad that he experienced the love of his life before he died."
On St. Patrick's Day, March 17, the couple attended a party at a friend's house in Charlottesville and stayed overnight. Ashley, Brett and the young man who rented the house were sound asleep, around 4 a.m., when a fire broke out.
Young said the man "woke up to discover his eyebrows were on fire and there was fire in his room. He was able to get to Ashley and Brett in another room and told them to get up and get out. There was a lot of smoke, and Ashley sat up in bed and coughed."
Then, said Young, since it was a duplex, the man ran next door to warn the neighbors. She said he thought the couple was following behind him.
"But the fire was in the hallway outside the bedroom, and the hallway collapsed and Brett and Ashley couldn't get out," she said. "The fire department came and got them out through a window."
YOUNG SAID both of them suffered smoke inhalation but, for Brett, it eventually proved fatal. "Brett had gone into cardiac arrest and wasn't breathing," she said. "Ashley was breathing on her own, but was unconscious." Brett died two days later, March 20, at UVA Medical Center.
It was Charlottesville's first fatality due to a fire in 10 years, and fire investigators still have not determined a cause. But the results were devastating. Young and her husband Steve, of Little Rocky Run, got the call about the fire, March 18, at 5 a.m. and were with Ashley by 7 a.m. And they remain by her side in the hospital.
"She's not really regained consciousness, yet," said her mom Monday night. "We think she can hear us and knows who we are, but it'll take awhile for her to come back. She has breathing and feeding tubes, so she can't speak. But her lungs are clearing up — the wonderful team of doctors and nurses are doing a fantastic job of taking care of her down here."
Young said Ashley's in critical, but stable, condition and her face received very few burns. "But her left leg, back and both heels were badly burned," she said. "She's doing some breathing on her own, but is still on a respirator. They're starting to take her off sedation and hope to wean her off life support. They'll also begin doing skin-grafting surgeries."
Her mom said many of Ashley's friends in Centreville who've heard what happened have either visited her or sent their love. But several are still unaware, so she's hoping they'll read this article and either come see her or send cards and e-mails.
"The support we've gotten from our families, her friends, our friends and the staff at Centre Ridge has been awesome," said Young. "And the group of friends we've met here — as well as Brett's family — has become our family. But Ashley needs all the support she can get."
THE HOSPITAL has a free, e-cards service through which people may reach Ashley. It's www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/e-cards/.
Brett's family, in lieu of flowers for him, established a foundation to help Ashley continue her education. Contributions to the Ashley Mauter Account Fund may be sent c/o The National Bank of Blacksburg, 100 S. Main St., Blacksburg, VA 24060.
Young said they're all deeply saddened by Brett's death, and she's coping with Ashley's situation "hour by hour." She said a tragedy like this "puts things in perspective and turns things upside down. And now, Ashley will have to make a new life for herself."
"There's nothing more important than your family and kids," she said. "And we're encouraging people to check their smoke alarms and make sure they're working. Whatever we can do to help others, we will."
Said Young: "We know we're very lucky to have Ashley. I just wish both sets of parents could have been as lucky because Brett was a terrific young man."