As a doting aunt who loved spending time with her young nieces, Elli, 11, Adilynn, 7, Emma, 5, and Anniston, 2, Andrea Cortes says her "whole life fell apart" in October 2016, when her sister, Michelle Speer, brother-in-law Mike Speer, and the girls died in a house fire.
The Nebraska college student was living with her sister's family on their farm property, staying in a cottage house behind their garage. On the night of Oct. 19, 2016, Cortes looked out her window to see her sister's house engulfed in flames.
"Nobody ever realizes that something like this could happen to them," Cortes told TODAY Parents, explaining how she dialed 911 and attempted to get inside the house, but was unable to get past the thick smoke caused by the fire.
WOWT-TV, the NBC news affiliate in Omaha, Neb., reported that the fire was caused by embers from the fireplace, which ignited the carpet and furnishings inside the Speer home.
"The preliminary autopsy report indicates the cause of death in all six was smoke inhalation," the report explained.
"Our family has always been super close," said Cortes. "My sister was my best friend and my rock, and she and Mike allowed me to be a part of raising my nieces — I had a special bond with each of them."
Cortes says she has struggled daily with her grief since the accident, but found some peace in a touching tribute tattoo she had placed on her arm in memory of her young nieces.
"To me, tattoos are an expression of your life and your passions, and it just felt right to have them on my body permanently," said Cortes.
"I have the three oldest girls' names in their handwriting from schoolwork that I had the tattoo artist trace and place on my arm," said Cortes. "To me, it's a piece of them with me and if it wasn't in their handwriting, it would feel less personal."
Because her youngest niece, Anniston, was only two, Cortes had no handwriting sample to add to her tattoo. But then, she remembered an email she once received from her sister.
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"My sister had been working from home one day and was on a conference call when Anniston tried to get her attention by saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,' over and over again," said Cortes, adding that once her sister hung up the call, she realized that Anniston had been coloring on the wall of their home with markers. "Once off the call, Michelle ... forwarded me a photo of Anniston next to her artwork."
It was this colorful addition that made Cortes' memorial tattoo complete.
"I think it has helped me with the healing process to have these tattoos on my arm — I get to tell their story, share my memories with people, and keep them alive in a sense," said Cortes.
"I struggle daily trying to be strong and continuing to live the best life I can while dealing with such a huge hole in it, so by having them on my arm, I get the strength to continue with my day."