PEORIA - Vauncile Woolery has lived in her neat white house at 1019 W. Third since 1954 and has been the "elderly neighborhood watch lady" for decades, looking out for burglars and helping neighbors who have had their power cut off.
But it was the 94-year-old woman who was in need of help Sunday, and her neighbors responded when a fire that started at 1021 W. Third spread to the two neighboring houses.
Claudvina Claudin, 46, banged on the door and told a firefighter to break the door down to get Woolery out. David Hunter, 21, used a pitcher to dump water on the fire at one of the houses.
"I knew she was in there," Claudin said. "She's just real sweet. We just watch out for her, too. Everybody watches out for everybody here."
Woolery and at least four other people were being put up by the Red Cross or staying with friends and relatives Sunday.
The fire, which was reported at 3:48 p.m., started in mattresses in a first-story bedroom at a gray house with peeling paint at 1021 W. Third that some neighbors thought was vacant.
But Louise Daniels, 58, said she and the homeowner, Christine Lancaster, had been staying there. Daniels said she was last there Friday. Investigators were still looking for Lancaster Sunday evening.
"If it was something that was dropped on the mattresses, it could have burned for some time," said fire investigator John Williams. "Once it got up in the attic it was able to run free."
Wind gusts of up to 29 mph helped spread the fire to the two neighboring houses that were only feet away, causing an estimated $12,000 damage to Woolery's house, which was to the east, and an estimated $10,000 damage to the house on the west, 1023 W. Third. The house where it all started was demolished Sunday night.
"The smoke was so thick you could hardly see to drive," said Battalion Chief Doug Brignall. "It's amazing how something can get going so fast with everybody at home on a Sunday."
Paul Gulley, 46, stood in the back yard of the yellow house with green trim at 1023 W. Third, where he and his mother live. He had a blanket wrapped around him to ward off the 37 degree chill. Dorothy Gulley, 82, was out front.
"I heard something," Dorothy Gulley said. "I was in the living room. There was a big flame between the two houses."
Woolery, who uses a walker, had been in bed all day. The Pabst Brewery retiree has been widowed since 1965. Her mother, who also lived at the house, died at age 99 in 1998.
"I got up to fix me some lunch," Woolery said. "I saw the fire trucks, and they were knocking to get me out."
She was watching the fire from outside a neighbor's house with her walker nearby and blankets over her flowered housecoat. A firefighter brought Woolery's glasses and medications, and her neighbors persuaded her to go inside out of the chill.
"Houses don't matter, but people do," Claudin said. "She watches the neighborhood. She's the elderly neighborhood watch lady."