SYLVANIA, Ga. -- The bulletin board in Tracy Mills' classroom is full of pictures of babies, laughing children and fashion models cut out of magazines.
Somewhere near the center is a picture of an angel on a Christmas tree. She's praying. Below, someone cut out the words "Our Hero."
The collage is a memorial to Samantha Sheppard, the 10-year-old Screven County girl who lost her life while saving her family from a Tuesday morning fire.
"She loved to read," said Ms. Mills, who taught the fourth-grader at Screven County Elementary School. "She was a very good student -- above her grade level. She was pretty quiet, but not always."
The school had three counselors talk to pupils. As expected, explaining why Samantha wouldn't be coming back to school was difficult.
"You just tell them what happened and let them ask questions," Principal Becky Martin said. "It's tough. It doesn't matter how long you've been a counselor."
Ms. Mills is one of nine fourth-grade teachers at the school of about 1,558 pupils. She has 26 pupils.
"It's 26 now. It was 27," she said quietly.
Samantha's presence can still be felt in the classroom. Pupils wrote down what they wanted to happen in 2000 on pieces of paper, cut them out in the shape of snowflakes and taped them to the wall. Samantha's is on the far right. It expresses the desires of many girls who grow up in Georgia -- wishes for little sisters and snow.
"I wish I would have a baby sister," she wrote. "And when she was born it would snow. If my mother would have a baby on Christmas and it would snow while she had been in the (hospital)."
Samantha had an older sister, Victoria, 13, and a brother, Christopher, 11. They lived in a little house on a dirt road in Newington, a small town about 12 miles southeast of Sylvania, with their grandmother, Lucille Sheppard.
At about 3:15 a.m. Tuesday, Samantha awakened them, yelling that the house was on fire. They escaped through a window, and the children ran to a neighbor, who called 911. But Samantha didn't make it out of the house.
Newington police said she probably got excited while waking everyone and inhaled too much smoke.
Nancy Brannen, a teacher at the elementary school, is also a first responder with the Newington Area Volunteer Fire Department. She got the call when the fire was reported.
"When we got the call, we didn't know the name -- just knew the area," she said. "When I drove up, it was fully involved."
Twelve volunteer firefighters were there, assisted by the Sylvania Fire Department. Police sent Ms. Brannen to the neighbor's house to assist the victims until MedStar arrived and took them to Screven County Hospital.
Ms. Sheppard was recovering in the hospital Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Martin said. Ms. Sheppard and other family members did not wish to speak to reporters.
Firefighters were on the scene for at least three hours, Ms. Brannen said. The fire destroyed the small house. All that could be seen in the still-smoldering remains Wednesday were badly charred appliances and remnants of a wall. Fire officials haven't concluded their investigation.
News of the tragedy hit the close-knit community hard. Samantha's family attended North Newington Baptist Church on Sundays. On some Wednesday nights they'd go to the Newington Baptist Church, a congregation of about 100 that has Bible classes then.
How to helpTo contribute to a fund for victims of the fire, contact the Bank of Newington at (912) 857-4466.
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