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Neighbors, Red Cross pitch in after Baker Heights fire

April 07, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BAKER HEIGHTS, W.Va. - If it were 15 minutes later, Shirley Walker might have been awake anyway, putting on a pot of coffee.

But when fire struck the Baker Heights I apartment complex about 5:45 a.m. on Sunday, Walker was still asleep in her first-floor apartment.

She said she woke up when her 19-year-old son, Shawn, rang her doorbell several times. Before she could answer, he was already pounding on a window.

"His first reaction was, 'Get the kids and y'all get out now,'" said Walker, who lived in one of six apartments heavily damaged in the fire.

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Walker said she and Shawn bundled up her two granddaughters, Alexis, 5, and Sady, 1, and took them outside. Her husband, David, also got out safely.

Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Co. Assistant Chief Mike Hough said the damage to the apartment building, which is on W.Va. 9, is estimated at $400,000 to $500,000.

Walker was scheduled to move this week into an apartment at Baker Heights II, which has 32 apartments, according to Bonnie Close, who manages both complexes. Baker Heights I has 24 apartments.

Besides Walker's apartment, three others had tenants, Close said.

Close said one tenant plans to buy a trailer, another has moved in with family and another was evicted because he didn't pay the rent for March.

Two apartments that burned were vacant.

Close said that the complex, which is owned by her brother, Leon, is insured.

Residents credited Michael Largent, 21, with quickly calling 911 after he drove up and saw smoke, then knocking on doors and leading some people out of their apartments.

Walker said she is grateful for Largent and her son. "If they were not there at that time, a lot of people would not be here today," she said.

Close said that Sheryl Stephens, the caretaker at Baker Heights II, called her at 6 a.m. Sunday to break the bad news.

Close said she was "in a tizzy" driving over from her Berkeley Springs because she didn't know if anyone was injured. "Thank God no one was hurt," she said.

She cancelled her plans to play music for her church that day and stayed to help residents.

Stephens and her boyfriend, Jose Flores, who lives at Baker Heights I, "were marvelous," Close said. They did everything from move furniture to make pots of coffee, she said.

The American Red Cross paid for the displaced families to stay in a motel for three days.

Each family also received vouchers for meals and two moderate-priced sets of clothing per person, including shoes, according to Linda Mueller, executive director of the Berkeley County Red Cross chapter.

Mueller said the Red Cross will pay the first month's rent when each family finds a new place to live and will get a voucher for a free week's worth of groceries.

The organization will also pay for work-related necessities lost in the fire, such as boots or tools, she said.

Medication and other health-related items, including eyeglasses and hearing aids, will be covered, too.

"We try to make sure all of their emergency needs are met," Mueller said. "Food, clothing and shelter are the priorities."

"Most folks don't realize how much we do after disasters," she continued. "We average (spending) about $2,000 to $2,500 per family."

She said donations of money can be sent to the Red Cross for victims of the fire, and they will receive 100 percent of the contributions. The address is American Red Cross, 802-D South Queen St., Martinsburg, WV 25401.

Anyone who wants to donate furniture or clothing can call 1-304-263-5241, she said.

Baker Heights I residents said there have been at least two other fires there in the last few years. One was in December 1998, when Donald James Jordan, 42, was killed by a fire in his apartment.

Close said the other was a few years earlier and apparently started in wiring on a water heater while the tenant was away.

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