'We tried so hard,' but woman in fire dies

March 13, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

As she slumped behind the bars of a locked, metal security door of her burning apartment, Phyllis Jewell Wiggins pleaded for help from neighbors to pull her through to safety.

"She was saying, 'Help me, please somebody help me, please,' " said next-door neighbor Ellis Basnight, who paused yesterday in front of the charred rubble at 2349 Eutaw Place, where Ms. Wiggins was burned over most of her body Saturday night.

She died yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center burn unit -- a victim of homicide, police said, because the fire was a case of arson.

Ms. Wiggins, 54, was a counselor at the Ripken Learning Center and former Baltimore public school teacher. Police were awaiting official word on the cause of death from the state medical examiner's office.

Fire investigators said they found two starting places for the fire -- in her bedding and in a closet. The multiple origins suggested a deliberately set blaze, they said.

A man identified by neighbors as a former boyfriend of Ms. Wiggins, who they said had been staying with her until she asked him to leave about a week and a half ago, was taken into custody for questioning when he arrived at the rowhouse apartment late yesterday afternoon.

Friends described Ms. Wiggins as an award-winning teacher and reading specialist who, for several years, worked at Pimlico Junior High School. On the patch of grass in front of the rowhouse, they gathered damp remnants of bills, school-related books and family photographs, and paused to hug neighbors who had attempted a rescue.

As flames spread in her apartment, Ms. Wiggins apparently tried to escape through a basement-level bedroom door into an alcove-like entry area under the building's front stoop. With flames behind her blocking the way back through the bedroom to an upstairs living room and exit, she had no other way to flee.

She encountered the locked metal door and could not get it open. Firefighters later said her keys were found on the floor; some neighbors said they saw her holding keys and struggling with the security door.

A police officer passing by in his cruiser had smelled smoke, then heard her screams and radioed the fire department at 7:44 p.m. He tried to kick the door in, with help from neighbors and other officers.

But the door stood firm until firefighters arrived with a bar to break it down.

By the time firefighters reached Ms. Wiggins, she had sustained second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body, a fire department spokesman said.

Neighbors wept and consoled each other.

"Thank you for what you did," Fredericka Richardson, a friend of Ms. Wiggins, said as she hugged neighbor James Epps, who with police officers had kicked and beaten on the door until some of its upper bars gave way.

'We couldn't get her out'

"She was leaning against the bars," Mr. Epps said. "I reached through and grabbed her and tried to pull her through. Her clothes were burned off and her hair was burning, and when I grabbed her, her skin was coming off. Everybody was crying -- the police officers were crying. It was just too much. We just couldn't get her out."

Mr. Epps, who lives about 10 doors away, returned yesterday to ask about Ms. Wiggins, whom he did not know. He gasped when told of her death.

"We tried so hard," he said.

Mr. Basnight, in the house next door, had joined in the rescue attempt and then run home to his kitchen for buckets and water.

"Everybody, we went in my place and filled buckets and everything at the bathtub, and then we were throwing it on her through the gate," he said.

Ms. Richardson and other women who knew Ms. Wiggins called her a good writer, a powerful orator and a fine singer who had overcome health and personal problems. The friends said she often attended services at New Psalmist Baptist Church on her Wednesday lunch hours.

'Gifted counselor'

Ms. Wiggins was a counselor at the Ripken Learning Center, an adult literacy program on Calvert Street, and staff member there since it opened five years ago, according to Maggi G. Gaines, executive director of the parent organization Baltimore Reads Inc.

"She was an incredibly gifted counselor. She was a person who had had a difficult life and yet was always interested in helping other people," Ms. Gaines said.

Ms. Wiggins was divorced and had no children. She had a brother in Gary, Ind., where she grew up, and he was on his way to Baltimore yesterday, Ms. Richardson said.

"She was the kind of person who would do anything you asked of her. She would help you with your resume, tutor your children, anything," said friend Roberta Miller, who lives a few blocks away.

Ms. Wiggins was typically upbeat, but in recent weeks, when the relationship with her boyfriend soured, she fretted, her friends said. She told them she wanted to move from the apartment -- her home for eight years, which she had let him share for an unknown length of time -- and even talked about dying.

"She told me recently that if anything happened, not to cry at her funeral, just to sing, sing, sing," said friend Vanessa Palmer.

But on Saturday, in the hours before the fire, Ms. Wiggins seemed upbeat, friends said.

"She called and left a message on my answering machine on Saturday," said Annie McIntosh Brown, a teacher who once left the profession but said she was inspired by Ms. Wiggins to return.

"In the message, she said she loved me, and she said, 'It's a glorious day.' "

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