Gladys Graves was just 16 years old when a house fire in Pine Bluff killed her sister and the sister’s three children on Jan. 30, 1975. Graves was badly injured in the fire and spent 11 months in a Little Rock hospital. Now living in Alabama, she returned to Pine Bluff last week and met with several n0w-retired firefighters who were on the scene of the fire. Special to The Commercial/William Harvey
Gladys Graves stands next to retired Pine Bluff firefighters Norris Williams, (left), Ken Golden and Bobby Robinson as she reunites with the men who were there when a fire broke out in her home 38 years ago, claiming the lives of four family members. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
More than 38 years after a deadly fire killed four people and injured five more in Pine Bluff, one of the survivors said thank you to some of the firefighters she credits with saving her life.
Gladys Graves, formerly Gladys Pierce, was 16 years old when the fire broke out at 1111 W. Second Ave., on Jan. 30, 1975. In a matter of minutes, the one-story wood frame structure was completely engulfed in flames.
The bodies of Graves’ sister, Carolyn Cummings, 22, and her three children, ages 2, 3 and 5, were recovered from the house after the flames were extinguished. Then-coroner Havis Hester said Cummings was seven months pregnant.
Graves and four other people were taken to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, and then Graves went to a Little Rock hospital.
Graves, now in her 50s and living Alabama, was in town last week and after getting a copy of the front page story on the fire that appeared in The Commercial, she went to the Fire and Emergency Services Main Station where she made contact with Chief Shauwn Howell, wanting to know if there were any firefighters still there who had been working when the fire broke out.
“It was a unique situation,” Howell said. “This was a fire that was 30-plus years old and there is no one working now who was there then but we told her we would try to find some retired firefighters from that time.”
The first of those was Norris Williams, who was 33 at the time of the fire. After talking to Graves by phone, Williams agreed to meet her Tuesday at the fire department. When he arrived, he brought along two other retired firefighters, Ken Golden and Bobby Robinson. All three had been on duty at the time of the fire, and all three participated in the effort to put the blaze out, help recover the bodies, and tend to the injured.
“I’ve tried to put it out of my mind but there’s no way,” Williams said. “You can’t blank it out and I see it again and again.”
“It was the worst one I had ever been to,” Golden said.
Graves said she was the last one to come out of the house, and heard her sister screaming before that.
“The room was on fire and I ran back into the room to get my glasses, then tried a window but it wouldn’t open,” she said. “I knew the house well enough to find the door and there was a huge flower pot my mother had at the door and I fell, half in the door and half out of it.
“Someone threw a blanket over me because my clothes were on fire and when they pulled the blanket off, my clothes and skin went with it,” she said. “I remember somebody grabbing me, pulling me off the porch, and putting me in an ambulance”
Graves was taken first to JRMC, then to a Little Rock hospital where she spent 11 months. She was released the day after her 17th birthday.
“I remember they were keeping me in water and after they took me to JRMC and said they couldn’t do anything, they took me to Little Rock and I remember riding all the way to the hospital in water,” Graves said. “They said I was in a coma for four months.
“After I woke up, I never knew what happened,” Graves said.
According to the story in The Commercial, Cummings came out of the house, then ran back in screaming to get her babies, a fact that Golden confirmed when he talked to Graves.
“She did exit the house, then went back,” Golden said.
Then=Assistant Fire Chief Ray Watson was quoted in The Commercial story as saying the fire started in the kitchen, and was brought under control after about an hour.
“I wish we could have done a lot more,” Robinson said.
Graves replied: “I was told that the house burned in seven minutes, so there was not a lot more you could have done.”
Graves said she had thought about coming to the fire department on a couple of previous trips to Pine Bluff but “I was scared.
“I never thought I would be sitting here,” she said. “I will be 55 in July and I’m glad these gentlemen were around.
“It would be nice for people to understand what these gentlemen did in the face of a pretty bad fire,“ Graves said. “They didn’t quit. They didn’t give up.”
Robinson said it was the first time any of the firefighters who were at that fire had spoken to a survivor.
“The rest of us moved to Alabama but this is where I was born and raised,” Graves said. “I go back to the site every time I come to town and the steps are still there.”