Elderly woman's home of 25 years destroyed by fire in moments

Thursday, October 9, 2003

By SONJA BJELLAND, skbjelland@naplesnews.com



A fire Wednesday morning left an elderly Estero woman homeless.

Estero and San Carlos Park firefighters doused the blaze at 20367 Oahu Circle within 15 minutes of receiving the call at 10:48 a.m.

Firefighters recovered a few charred books, a set of silverware, jewelry, a tea set and two pairs of shoes from the destroyed home. Darlene Smith needed the shoes because she escaped in only her slippers.

Neighbors said Smith is in her early 80s and did not have anyone close who could help her. She had lived in the park for 25 years or more, said Andy Herold, park manager.

Smith spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at a neighbor's home while being interviewed by investigators and helped by the Red Cross.

The cream, doublewide in Tahiti Mobile Village melted like a Styrofoam cup in a camp fire. Only wall studs remained among the ash with blown out windows and a fallen carport. Siding on surrounding homes puffed like marshmallows in a microwave.

Estero Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Merrifield said firefighters saw some indications the fire may have been electrical. The American Red Cross of Lee County arrived to provide Smith with basic needs and a place to stay for a few days.

Henrietta Liddell, who lives across the street, saw everything. She was reading the paper in a chair facing a window toward Smith's home. She saw Smith walk across the street with her cane and wearing her house slippers, shorts and a top. Smith never had the chance to go back.

A man picked up Liddell's garden hose to try to put out the fire. It was too late.

Liddell then called Smith's bedridden neighbor to warn her that smoke and flames were heading toward her home.

"You never saw such a fire. It looked like oil or something," she said.

Most of the park's residents remain up North but those who were around came to see the commotion. Then they began to worry about the vinyl siding on their own homes.

Connie Archer lives one mobile home over from Smith's and heard the fire engines roaring into the park.

"I screamed at my husband, 'My God there's a fire next door,'" she said. "I'd never seen anything burn up that fast."