Winder family still recovering after fatal September fire

Russ Sauls and his daughter Wynn, 17, pose for a portrait Thursday in what remains of their Winder home, which caught fire on Sept. 18. Wynn jumped from the second story to escape the blaze. Russ’ 18-month-old granddaughter, Kharma Aaryah Knight, was killed as a result of the fire. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

Russ Sauls and his daughter Wynn, 17, pose for a portrait Thursday in what remains of their Winder home, which caught fire on Sept. 18. Wynn jumped from the second story to escape the blaze. Russ’ 18-month-old granddaughter, Kharma Aaryah Knight, was killed as a result of the fire. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)


• What: Winter festival to benefit the Sauls family

• When: Noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14

• Where: City of Winder picnic pavilion, 113 E. Athens St.

• More information: The event will include a silent auction, raffles, live music, food, Santa and more in an effort to raise money for the Sauls family, who lost their home and their granddaughter in a fire. For more information, visit the “Sauls Benefit Auction” page on Facebook.


A memorial formed along the driveway entrance to the Sauls family home which caught fire on Sept. 18, resulting in the death of 18-month-old Kharma Aaryah Knight. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)


The hands of Russ Sauls, 50, which were burned during the fire that destroyed his house on September 18, in Winder. Sauls’ has burns on 80 percent of his body. Sauls built the home with his father Jimmy Sauls in the late 1980’s (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)


Russ Sauls and his daughter Wynn Sauls, 17, pose for a portrait in what remains of their house which caught fire on Sept. 18 in Winder. Wynn jumped from the second story to escape the blaze. Russ’ 18-month-old granddaughter Kharma Aaryah Knight was killed in the fire. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)


Russ Sauls looks through the remains of his Winder home, which burned on Sept. 18. Sauls built the home with his father Jimmy in the late 1980s. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)


Kharma Aaryah Knight, 19 months, died in the September fire at her grandparents’ Winder home. (Special Photo)

WINDER — These are the hands of Russ Sauls: incongruous splotches of red and pink and white, glossed over and scarred. Fingers both bloated and bony, tips without feeling.

These are the 50-year-old hands that raised three daughters, and the ones that put food on his family’s table by tinkering with small parts at a Norcross plastic bottle factory. They’re the hands that help in his wife’s war with Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder slowly winning battles against her motor skills and her neurons.

These are the hands that built a home, an ongoing 20-year project, on a spacious wooded lot tucked about a mile off Ga. Highway 53. His grandmother’s land.

These are the hands that, woken in the middle of the night, tried to use a garden hose to fight the flames engulfing that same home. Flown to Grady Memorial Hospital along with the rest of his body — 80 percent burned — they’re the hands that lay dormant in a 48-day coma, patient as chaos swirled around them: the death of his granddaughter, the burns of his youngest daughter, the mourning and the what-are-we-gonna-do’s.

On this day, 24 hours after being released from the hospital, Russ Sauls’ hands are clutching a Natural Light and tapping gingerly on an unfamiliar kitchen table.

“They’ve got a long way to go,” he says in a lightning-quick, thickly Southern voice. “But they’re a lot better than they were.”


Wynn Sauls had slept for about an hour — the result of late-night chemistry homework — when she awoke to her father screaming. At 2 a.m. on Sept. 18, at the intersection of Rockwell Church and Moon Bridge roads, the latter was scrambling around the outside and shouting for someone to call 911.

The former, just 16 years old at the time, was soon on the second-story roof contemplating a jump. Flames were swallowing the house.

“I was just pacing back and forth and I got in the middle, I just stood there because I was scared and I was screaming and nobody was hearing me,” Wynn says. “I didn’t see anybody coming to get me. I knew I had to do it by myself.”

She jumped, clearing flames and landing on a bush. Her sister, 22-year-old Brianna, came around the corner a few seconds later. As their father screamed, they realized every phone was still inside.

The sisters drove to a neighbor’s house, then another. No answer. They decided to drive further down the road to try a friend of their father, but noticed a stranger sitting on his porch while en route.

Brianna called 911, stayed on the phone for a minute or two and left. Her baby — 19-month-old Kharma — was still in the house, sleeping in the sunroom.

“I don’t know what happened at the house after that,” Wynn says.

As she was loaded into the lifeflight helicopter, the cool air from its blades soothed her burns.


This Saturday a very special winter festival will be held at the picnic pavilion in downtown Winder. Santa will be there, amid raffles and live music and games and face painting and food. A silent auction with items from dozens of retailers will be held.

Afterward — and for an additional fee — a magician will perform.

It will all benefit the Sauls family, and was all put together by Jennifer Green.

“I wanted to make sure I could help them,” says Green, who lives behind the Sauls. Wynn Sauls is close friends with her daughter, Kelsey, and joins them on family vacations. “There was nothing I could do in the hospital and not really anything I could do anywhere else, so this is all I could do.”

The event is free to attend and will be held from noon to 5 p.m. The pavilion is located at 113 E. Athens St. For more information, visit the “Sauls Benefit Auction” page on Facebook.

Earlier this month, Green spent a weekend outside Walmart, collecting roughly $1,300 for the Sauls family. She hopes the December event will give the family even more “running money,” but she’s not putting a figure on it beforehand.

“I can’t set a goal,” she says, “because every time I set one other things get donated.”


Kharma Aaryah Knight died in that morning’s blaze, later determined to be caused by an electrical failure in the room where she was sleeping. Her mother, Brianna, had minor burns on her shoulders and was kept at the hospital overnight.

Her aunt, Wynn, had third-degree burns on her right elbow and others on her legs, nose and chin; she was kept in the hospital for about a week. Her grandmother, Angela Sauls, had been in Statham that night, snoozing after a sisterly evening of movie watching.

Then there was her grandfather.

Russ Sauls was burned everywhere but his chest, upper thighs and face that night. He was in a coma at Grady Memorial Hospital for weeks.

“I don’t really know where (in the house) I got burnt, when, how,” he says. “I was just doing what I could try to do.”

As Russ fought, Angela rarely left his side. Sidel, the Norcross company where Russ has worked for 15 years, paid for an Atlanta hotel room for nearly two months.

Wynn stayed with her Granny Lou and tried to keep up with her studies at Winder-Barrow High School. Brianna stayed with a friend.

“Those were tough nights,” Angela says.

After 48 days, countless skin grafts and a few surgeries, Russ Sauls woke up. Because he had done so much of his healing in the coma, he only spent another eight or nine days at Grady before being moved to Duluth’s Glancy Rehabilitation Center.

Less than a week there and he was released to go “home” — to a house temporarily donated by C.B. Skelton, a local doctor who goes way back with his mother.

“It’s definitely probably a miracle that I did survive,” Russ says. “But I did, and I’m gonna keep kicking.”

He pauses and grins.

“I just can’t believe I woke up and done slept half of hunting season.”


There’s no choice but to rebuild.

It might still be another three or four months until Russ, the family’s sole breadwinner, will be able to return to work, but a new home will eventually go up over the ashy leftovers of that night. Winder’s the only place he’s ever lived and, given the community outpouring during his family’s time of need, he can’t imagine going anywhere else.

This home, though, won’t be a Russ Sauls production. The family will pay someone else to do the building.

For now, they’re all at the loaner house on Brookview Terrace, a short walk from the football stadium at Winder-Barrow High School. They’re also just down the street from Lynne and Russell Varnum, the latter of which Russ Sauls has known since boyhood and has now worked with for more than a decade.

Many friends, family and community members — including some the family didn’t even know — visited the hospital during Russ’ stay, rotating shifts to make sure someone was there at all times. The Varnums were regulars.

Lynne Varnum paid especially close attention to his recovery, waiting and praying and hoping for a very specific saving grace.

“I watched your hands,” she says to Russ, weeks later. “The whole time you were sick I was just wanting to make sure your hands were alright.”