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Sunday fire injured woman, killed mans pet
Debra Bell hugs Jack Prince in front of the burned out apartment house where her mother lived. Prince owns the house on Lanier Avenue that burned Sunday evening. - photo by Tom Reed

Bessie Pugh had just walked to the kitchen of her Gainesville apartment Sunday evening. When she came back to the living room, something was on fire.

Her daughter, Debra Bell, was already on the way to see her.

"I seen the house was on fire, and I was hollering for my mama because I didn’t see where she was at," Bell said Monday afternoon, standing outside the burned home. "She was sitting over here in these neighbors’ driveway in a chair, covered up. ... Her face was burned and her hand and her arm, and her blood pressure was really high." She had also fallen down a slight embankment while getting away.

The house at 989 Lanier Avenue off Thompson Bridge Road was built in the 1940s and served as four apartments, with single occupants in each one. Fire Marshal Chad Payne estimated an 80 percent loss, about $160,000, to the 2,700-square-foot structure.

The fire was ruled accidental and started on the main floor at about 5:45 p.m. after some sort of small heating source, possibly a space heater, caught bedding material on fire, Gainesville Fire Department spokesman Capt. Keith Smith said.

It took at least an hour to knock down the flames, he said.

"And then they have to begin searching for hot spots, tearing out walls, making sure everything’s extinguished," he said. Firefighters were on scene for about four hours.

He added that converted apartments like this one can leave many voids, making the fire harder to fight.

"You can see fire coming out and you can walk inside and not see anything," he said.

Smith said Pugh was treated on scene for minor burns. Bell said she then took her to the emergency room where she stayed until midnight.

"I just thank God she don’t have any broken bones cause she’s 79 years old," Bell said.

Morris Walker, who has lived in one of the apartments for about two years, was at work in Buford when the fire started. He got a call and raced home, where he knew his 1-year-old white German shepherd, Bear, was inside.

"My dog, my dog was in there," he said of the thoughts running through his head. "The first thing I could think about was hopefully they would be able to get him out safe, but the fire was so intense that the firefighters couldn’t go in."

Walker buried the dog Monday on a hill behind the house. He praised firefighters for going above and beyond their call, though, helping residents carry things out of their homes. He was able to salvage a photo album, passport and some clothing. Red Cross was helping with accommodations.

Jack Prince, owner of the property off and on for 30 years, was waiting on insurance estimates Monday and talking with his tenants. He was in the mountains when he heard about the fire, and it was still roaring by the time he got there.

"We’ve spent most of the last year renovating all these apartments," he said. "Got them just crackerjack, then the fire came."

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