Fatal Fire Last Night on California Ave.
UPDATE 1:20 PM: Channel 5 now reports police are investigating "two men running from the house shortly before the fire started." The victim is now identified as Maxine Gassmann, the homeowner. If this was indeed arson, it just makes me sick.
As reported by the Post-Dispatch and by Channel 5, an 83-year-old woman was killed in a fire last night, about 8:00 PM in her home at 3176 California. Reportedly, firefighters had to be evacuated because of fear the building would collapse. This is a six-family, two-story rowhouse building (c. 1890) located at the corner of California and the alley just north of the 2700 block of Wyoming. That's about two blocks from my house.
I came through the area on my way home from teaching a class at WashU (via a detour for some groceries) about a block away, at Oregon and Wyoming, just before 10:00 PM. Police had Wyoming eastbound blocked off at Oregon. Another police car was sitting at the corner of California and Wyoming, presumably to keep traffic from coming through.
A few minutes after I got home, I saw the TV news report about what had happened.
Although I never met the woman, who lived alone for at least 20 years and had no tenants according to the news reports, I walked past that home many times. I just assumed it was vacant and owned by a speculator, because the rear porches were literally falling off, much moreso than I'm accustomed to seeing even on fairly neglected homes.
Public records indicate the building was inspected in 2002 with 20 violations evident, and again in April 2005 with 12 violations evident. These code violations were apparently not resolved. As recently as October 6, 2005, somebody had complained about high weeds and raw garbage there; but somebody must have taken care of that, because the high weeds service request is marked as "abated" by 11/18/05, and the raw garbage complaint is marked "No evidence" as of 10/07/05.
3176 California is located in the 9th ward portion of Benton Park West, only a couple hundred feet away from the offices of EnergyCare, located at the SE corner of California and Wyoming since 1993 in a beautiful historic three-story corner commercial building.
EnergyCare is an organization that does good work; although many remember it most because its founder, and sister of the current director, Sister Patricia Kelley, was brutally raped and murdered in September 1987 by Jerry Lee Little. Sr Kelley was attacked at the original offices of EnergyCare, in the ground-floor of the Saum Apartments at 1919 S. Grand and Castleman. She also lived in the building, as did her killer and another of his victims - Imogene Jackson, who was a receptionist at the Fox Theatre.
Sr Pat Kelley was killed only a few days after the infamous National Supermarket murders, in which five employees of the National store at Natural Bridge and Newstead were killed in a robbery.
If last night's fire was caused by use of space heaters, this was a neighborhood resource nearby that perhaps could have helped. But, it's really not fair to speculate. Understandably, the elderly woman killed was probably too proud to accept help from such an organization. I would be, too.
Sadly, I'm sure we will hear about a lot more fires this winter across the country, as natural gas prices skyrocket.
Each month, I dread the arrival of my Laclede Gas bills via email. The latest was just under $200 for the upstairs unit where we live, and about $30 for the downstairs unit that houses the latest stray kitten I brought in.
I'm sure the next bills will be higher. And, since I'm not low-income nor elderly, the cold weather rule only provides minimal protection. Maybe I should sign up for budget billing - but then won't I get soaked next summer by fairly high gas bills, combined with high electric bills?