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Fire tragedy prompts study-abroad student to push for safety upgrades

Paula Wissel

Spending a semester abroad is often a highlight of college life. But for one University of Washington graduate, it was anything but.

Grace Flott is still dealing with scars from a tragedy she suffered while overseas. Now she’s working to help others learn from her experience.

Pursuing a dream

For Flott, a Spokane native, going to Paris to study was a dream come true.

“I was really excited to leave, Paris is the city of light, the most romantic city in the world,” she said.

When she arrived, in August of 2010, it more than met her expectations. She went to classes, visited museums and found a roommate, a student from Florida, to share a tiny Parisian apartment with.

Then on April 13, 2011, everything changed.

Smoke, then panic

Flott and her roommate were with a group at another  student’s  apartment when uddenly, there was a loud bang.

“My friend gets up and opens the door and looks into the hallway on the 4th floor, and there’s like smoke just gushing into the room,” Flott said.

People started to panic. Flott couldn’t see or breathe.

“I could feel my skin start to burn and my clothing start to burn,” she said.

She and the others moved towards the window, the only source of fresh air. There was no fire escape. From the 4th floor, she and the others jumped.

Death toll

When Flott came to, in the courtyard below, she was in excruciating pain.

“And then I saw my roommate, Jasmine, and she was just laying on her back on the ground,” Flott said.

Jasmine Jahanshahi died, along with three other students, Louise Brown, Lise Aseberg and Felicia Bohm.

Flott spent months in the hospital, and over a year in rehabilitation.

Channeling emotions into something constructive

Flott was able to return to school at the University of Washington in 2012.

And, she came back determined to get school study abroad programs to focus more attention on safety, to go beyond the standard warnings about pick pockets and drinking water.

For example, she says, it never dawned on her that France wouldn’t have stringent fire safety codes.

“We have such amazing safety standards in the U.S. that when you go to Western Europe you kind of assume it’s going to be the same,” Flott said.

But, as Flott learned, that wasn’t the case.

Foundation works for fire safety awareness

She’s now working with a foundation started by her late roommate’s family. It’s called JUSTICE (Jasmine’s Universal Stand Towards Inferno Caution & Education.)

JUSTICE is pushing colleges to educate students about the need to check out fire codes and know what emergency numbers to call in a foreign country.

There is also an effort to get schools to provide students traveling abroad with a very simple device.

“Just  having a smoke detector in your apartment could save your life,” Flott said.

She says it’s something study abroad programs could provide each student with for about $20 a piece.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.