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Haven lost to flames

She tried to do all the right things: worked hard, paid cash for a modest house, took in troubled relatives. Then her life changed overnight.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007


From left, Thelma Louise Baker, 77, and her daughter Ernestine McCrone, 51, in the doorway of Baker's home after a fire gutted the house Wednesday afternoon.
photo
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
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photo
[Dirk Shadd | Times]
From left, LeeAndre Green, 25, and Wilmer McCrone Jr., 36, work to remove the damaged tile floor at the home of their grandmother, Thelma Louise Baker, 77, after a fire destroyed the house, built in 1929.

ST. PETERSBURG

Last week 77-year-old Thelma Louise Baker sat forlornly in front of the green shell that had been her home for 10 years. She paid cash for it after the Pinellas County School District bought her last home and others around it for the new Campbell Park Elementary School. Since then, the house and garage apartment at 927 10th Ave. S had provided her with a measure of security and become a refuge for two mentally ill sons, a down-on-his-luck nephew and a visually impaired brother with Alzheimer's disease. On Oct. 17 their lives went up in smoke. A fire that started with an unattended candle in the cottage destroyed appliances, furniture, clothes and a lifetime of family photographs. Utilities to the garage apartment, where two of Baker's dependents lived, were disconnected. The flames also took a treasured picture of the Last Supper, the first thing she looked at each day in prayer.. See fire, 14

Now the woman who cleaned other people's houses for 26 years is without a permanent home. Her family says she can't afford to repair her badly damaged house.

"The insurance is not enough to cover her expenses," daughter Ernestine McCrone said. "A lot of work has to be done. Everybody is saying that she's going to have to take out a mortgage to pay for the work."

The house, which Baker bought for $56,000, was insured for about $60,000, McCrone said, and a contractor has estimated repairs would cost $160,000.

To cut expenses, a couple of grandsons and their friends are gutting the tiny two-bedroom house themselves. Last week, a large trash bin overflowed with debris from their efforts. A few yards away, a bathtub and the hulls of two refrigerators and a stove sat atop a small mountain of damaged property. The early morning fire had spared little, even scorching a tree trunk and a wooden fence.

* * *

Weeks earlier, the scene had been different. St. Petersburg's Neighborhood Team, or N-Team as it is commonly known, organized volunteers from an interfaith group to paint the exterior of Baker's home and repair a door and front and back steps.

"She was so happy because she could sit on her porch. The mayor Rick Baker himself came and took a picture with her and called her his sister," said McCrone, 50.

Weeks later the work would be undone.

Sitting in her dusty yard last week, Louise Baker said she was jolted from sleep to find her house on fire.

"Something said, open my eyes," she said. She rushed to her son's back bedroom.

"He was trying to put out the fire."

The flames seemed to follow as she escaped through the front door.

"I jumped that gate," she said, pointing to the 4-foot-high gate of her chain-link fence.

"I never can do it again."

* * *

For now, Baker is living with McCrone, who asked one of her daughters and a grandchild to move to make room for the elderly woman. The St. Petersburg Times learned of Baker's problems from former business editor Elizabeth Whitney, one of Baker's former employers.

"Some people just have to work so hard and have so many problems to work out," said Whitney, who praised Baker's integrity and work ethic.

Vel Thompson, who heads the city's N-Team, is trying to help Baker. She plans to give her furniture and shingles that were donated to the N-Team program. Thompson, one of the first people the family turned to after the fire, said Baker is distraught.

"She feels that she is totally responsible for her sons," Thompson said.

It was one of her sons, Bernard Jerome Brown, 51, who had been burning the candle that sparked the fire, Baker said. McCrone said her brother, who has a lengthy arrest record, is bipolar and schizophrenic.

McCrone has temporarily closed her flower shop, A Perfect Match Flowers and More in Gulfport, to help her mother.

"My mama is going through depression. I have to babysit her, just trying to uplift her spirit," she said.

McCrone said she's also protecting her mother from dishonest contractors:"I'm trying to find people to see who I can negotiate with so she doesn't have to get a mortgage."

Granddaughter Tivica Greene, 34, a student at St. Petersburg College, said she's frustrated that there's little help available for her grandmother.

"We were trying to get rental assistance to help her move into a place. Operation Attack gave her a bag of food. We went to the Urban League, to the Salvation Army. We went to numerous places and they said they have no funds available," Greene said.

"What happened to love your neighbor? What happened to when you see a person had a loss and you come over and say, can I cook you a bowl of soup? Now we walk around and say, 'They had a fire.' We stop and look, but we keep on going."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Fast facts

To help

Call Ernestine McCrone at (727) 641-3146.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 21:57:09]


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