A 95-year-old Dollarway woman who died in a house fire early Tuesday morning will be remembered by friends and neighbors as a steadfast Christian who knew the Bible by heart.
Oneta Christmas had lived in her home at 5609 Kennedy St. for more than 30 years, according to her neighbors, and she was adamant about remaining there, despite the concerns of those who tried to convince her to move.
“She never missed church, no matter what,” said close friend Velma Wilson. “She would be there in rain, snow, hot weather or whatever. And she loved to sing and everybody loved her. It wasn’t unusual to see the kids running up to her to get hugs.”
A space heater appeared to have started the blaze, Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell said of the initial fire investigation, which is still ongoing.
Betty Stevens, a next-door neighbor who said she reported the fire, had just eaten breakfast when she heard loud popping noises.
“At first I thought someone was breaking in,” Stevens said.
She opened the door and saw smoke coming from the back of the house and called 911. Stevens said she looked for a way to get into the house to assist Christmas, who generally used a wheelchair or walker to get around.
“I couldn’t see a way in, so I ran across the street to get help,” Stevens said.
By the time someone came to the door, Christmas’ house was engulfed in flames.
“Just thinking about that poor lady, I wished I could have got her out,” Stevens said.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” said Naomi Barlow, who had previously lived two doors down from Christmas for 36 years. “That house should have been torn down a long time ago. But she was just a poor lady … just like all of us.”
Wilson’s friendship with Christmas started more than 15 years ago when they met in church. She was a member of White Hall United Pentecostal Church for more than 30 years.
“She was as good as gold,” Wilson said. “If she could do anything for you, she would.”
But it was Christmas’ knowledge of the Bible that Wilson will remember most.
“She read the whole Bible two or three times every year, and she could quote every verse,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Christmas had once told her that she didn’t have an education and that she learned to read by studying the Bible.
Christmas’ pastor, Chris Dixon, said: “She was a faithful member, kind and very spiritual. There wasn’t a scripture that I could start that she couldn’t finish.”
Dixon said Christmas was a happy person who loved being in her home.
“Lots of people tried to get her to move into a nursing home, but she wasn’t having it … and she had a sound mind and always had the final say.”
Dixon said the church offered to do some repairs around the house, but Christmas declined the offer.
“She was never neglected,” he said. “Many people cared for her, checked on her and helped her any way they could. But she wanted to leave things just as they were.”
Wilson said she had also recently become concerned about Christmas’ home.
“The house, the floors, everything was falling apart,” she said.
Wilson said she spoke to Christmas on several occasions, asking her to consider moving into a better place or maybe a nursing home, but Christmas had been adamant about staying in her home.
“She just did not want to leave,” Wilson said. “She told me her house was paid for and she was going to stay there.”
Wilson said she contacted several agencies and her alderman to see if others could persuade her to move.
Alderman Steven Mays, who said he learned of Christmas’ situation earlier this year, said his efforts to get Christmas relocated “got bogged down in red tape” when the necessary signatures could not be collected.
Jefferson County Coroner Chad Kelley identified the Christmas as the victim of the fire and said she was pronounced dead by Deputy Coroner Eric Belcher at 7:01 a.m. Her body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy.