Monday, February 18, was not a particularly cold night for the dead of winter, but the wind blowing up Red Mountain toward Five Points South was brutal.
It drove the considerable homeless population on Birmingham’s Southside to seek refuge anywhere they could, including an abandoned house on 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.
It proved to be a fateful decision, as shortly before 8 p.m. a spectacular 3-alarm blaze broke out in the building, leaving three men dead and nothing left standing in the rubble but two chimneys facing each other.
By this Monday one of the men, 53-year-old Jeffery Lane Petty of Birmingham, had been identified through fingerprints, according to Jefferson County Deputy Coroner Philip Russell.
“He was the only one we were able to get prints from, since the bodies were so badly burned,” Russell said Monday. “We are trying to identify another of the men through dental records, but we may have to use DNA to try to determine who the third one was, which could take weeks or months.”
A fourth man in the building that night, Samuel Hale, was able to make his way out of the inferno and is now listed in critical condition at UAB’s burn unit. He is unable to communicate, under heavy medication and has feeding and breathing tubes running down his throat and into his lungs and stomach, Russell said.
The fire was so intense that it was not until the next day, as firemen picked though the ashes, that the bodies of three men were discovered.
Later that day, as the site cooled down somewhat, someone placed a single vase of flowers and a condolence card on the steps of what remained of the abandoned house.
If the three men who perished in the fire had no formal families in the Birmingham area, they certainly had informal ones in the tight-knit community of homeless who spend their days on the Southside, congregating around the fountain in front of the Highlands United Methodist Church at Five Points and “the horseshoe” of stone benches in front of the Original Pancake House across the busy intersection.
“All we know is the fire started about eight o’clock Monday and was all but out in less than an hour,” said a woman who called herself Pebbles. Like most of the homeless in the area, she was reluctant to give her real name.
“I was watching it, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before the whole damn roof came down,” she said. “We didn’t know there was anybody inside, but I do know even though it was boarded up, there were ways to get in and a lot of people have slept in there during the winter.
“It wasn’t all that cold that night, but the wind was whipping around, and we were all looking for someplace to get warm,” Pebbles said.
“I’ve never stayed in there, but I know a lot of people do, and I was afraid of this,” said a man who called himself Blue.
Another of the homeless, who refused to be identified at all, said he saw Hale jump out a second story window on fire. “I went to see him at the hospital yesterday and he has extensive smoke and fire damage,” the man said Friday. “He may also have some broken bones from the fall.”
Many of the homeless in the Five Points area say they have a pretty good idea who the dead were. “I know I haven’t seen some of the regulars since the fire, and I am worried about at least a couple of them,” Blue said. “But some people just drift off on their own and will be here one day and gone the next.”
Birmingham Fire Marshal and Battalion Chief C.W. Mardis confirmed Monday that “one or two” of the victims in a Monday house fire were homeless.
Mardis also said the fire was started by “human hands,” but did not say the fire was necessarily arson. There were no working utilities inside of the abandoned house and an electrical fire has been ruled out, although Mardis has not released a determination of how the fire started. “We may never know. It was an old wooden structure and there was so much damage that it will be hard to trace the cause back to its origins.”
Deb Welsh, the director of serving ministries at Highland Methodist, coordinates a six-day-a-week meal service and provides laundry, mail and sanitation services for the homeless and the poor of the area. She said she has been working with the coroner’s office to provide leads on who the two unidentified bodies may have belonged to.
“We see most of the people who are homeless, as well as those who have homes but need to some assistance on a pretty regular basis,” she said. “Right now we are trying to determine who hasn’t turned up and every time one does, we cross him off the list.”
Welsh said she senses a continuing concern with the tragedy. “I know a lot of the merchants in the area and a lot of the people in the church are very concerned.
“It may not seem like it, but there is a real community here,” she added. “I know this morning there was a lot of talk at breakfast about who wasn’t there and growing concern about people who haven’t been seen since Monday.”
Mardis added that Hale could provide some information once he is able to communicate from his UAB hospital room, “but that does not look like it will be any time soon. “He is in pretty bad shape right now,” Mardis said. “And besides, he may not even have known the people he was in the building with that night.”