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'Miss Betty' starts over

Town fixture moves on after fire destroys belongings

Town fixture moves on after fire destroys belongings

October 24, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WILLIAMSPORT

erinc@herald-mail.com

Her head drops slightly when she recalls her kitchen cabinets.

Running her soft fingers over a photograph, Betty Baker doesn't see the charred and broken wood. She thinks of her cabinets, freshly painted and white.

Baker, 80, said the cabinets and woodwork were painted white over the summer. Now, stained and ash-colored, the cabinets - along with the rest of the home she lived in for 24 years - are destroyed.

Baker, a lifelong Williamsport resident, lost her home at 20 N. Artizan St. in a fire Oct. 11.

Baker was sitting in her recliner, watching "Jeopardy" and drifting in and out of sleep that night. She decided to take some clothing to her grandchildren, who lived next door.

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She was gone about 20 minutes, and when she walked back across the yard, wearing only a thin nightgown, she saw the flames.

"I just started hollering, 'My house is on fire. My house is on fire,'" she said.

Soon, firefighters and emergency medical technicians were there. Most of her six children stayed at the scene long after Baker left in an ambulance.

She remembers sitting in an ambulance, where she was given oxygen to help with her breathing. She suffers from chronic bronchitis, she said.

"The (EMTs), they just told me not to worry. They said they'd make it right," Baker said.

While the structure is still intact, the inside of the house is a total loss, Baker said.

When she talks about the fire, Baker doesn't mention the loss of her furniture or appliances.

"I miss my house," she said. "The whole house."

Baker said she hasn't had a good night's sleep since the night of the fire. She wakes up after only two hours and says she feels uncomfortable without her familiar bed. Baker stays with her son or her daughter, Barbara Baker.

Without her home, her favorite rocker or her eyeglasses, very little has been familiar for Baker since the fire.

"I left my glasses on the counter by my Kleenex," Baker said. "They melted all the way down."

She has leaned on family, friends and the community. The Williamsport fire and rescue crews did not stop helping after they extinguished the blaze.

Baker said Chief William Ball of the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Co. said, "Miss Betty, you did for the town of Williamsport, now you let the town of Williamsport do for you."

When Baker's husband died in a car accident in 1959, she was left with six children - all younger than 11 - and $250 per month, which she received from Social Security. She had never worked but said she enjoyed cleaning, so she started cleaning houses for money. Her children went along, and often played while she cleaned.

"It wasn't easy," she said. "But that $250 a month didn't go very far with six little ones."

She moved for a few years to be closer to her late husband's family, but she said it never felt like home. She moved back to Williamsport and began working for the town.

Baker spent 20 years cleaning as a Williamsport employee. The library, town hall, community buildings and the pavilion - Baker has scrubbed them all.

Over time, residents began to call her "Feather Duster."

At 66, Baker retired from her work with the town. But 14 years later, she hasn't stopped cleaning. After the fire, she took one week off to get settled, but last week she was back at it.

She cleans the fire and ambulance stations, homes and other town buildings. Baker never writes down her appointments; she has her schedule memorized.

"I like to keep busy," Baker said. "I don't like to sit still."

After a lifetime of cleaning other people's houses, hers has been reduced to soggy, charred remains.

"She has nothing," Barbara Baker said.

A friend suggested to Barbara Baker that she open a bank account for her mother at M&T Bank, where family, friends and even strangers could donate money to help Baker rebuild. Barbara Baker said her mother's insurance will not pay to replace everything that was lost.

Baker's rental insurance will replace $10,000 in possessions. Barbara Baker said her mother lost $8,000 in furniture and nearly all of her clothes.

The homeowner has agreed to let Baker move back into the home, possibly by Christmas, after the house is repaired.

While she enjoys staying with her children, Baker said she will be relieved to be in her own home again. She says she'll decorate the house again the way she likes it - white walls, white cupboards and dark wood paneling.

"Things are getting better," Baker said. "I'm more content. But my home is my home, and I never go away."

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