Bernice Thurmond remembered her younger sister Alice “Faye” Law in bright, happy ways.
“She laughed a lot, she smiled a lot, and she loved music and she used to dance,” said the 92-year-old on Tuesday, March 26. “And she had a good singing voice.”
But then Faye, who never married, also was strong-willed and self-determined — traits that drove her to leave the South at a young age to continue her college education and eventually build a career in New York.
“She was hard-headed, very willful. It was a strong attribute and a weak attribute,” niece Gail Law said from the porch of her Gainesville home Tuesday afternoon. “And it cost her her life.”
Gail and family members spent the day mourning the woman — known in the family by her middle name, Faye — but also struggling with the way she died.
The 84-year-old was found early Monday in a Gainesville apartment filled after a fire with items stacked to the ceiling, just days after officials deemed the space unsafe due to hoarding.
Family members knew of Faye’s penchant for bringing home thrift-store items.
“I’d say, ‘Faye, what you’re doing is not normal,’” Gail said. “And she’d laugh and say, ‘Well, it’s normal for me.’ We’d argue and fuss … but it was to no avail.”
Faye’s death also hit officials hard.
“City employees in the Code Enforcement Division, along with others in the community, worked diligently to help Ms. Law and are heartbroken about this tragedy,” city spokeswoman Nikki Perry said.
Gainesville firefighters responded at 4:30 a.m. March 25 to the Candler Square Apartments after getting reports of a structure fire. When they arrived at the apartment complex on Candler Street, between Green and Prior streets, “personnel found heavy smoke and fire showing from the structure,” Gainesville Fire Department Division Chief Keith Smith wrote in a news release.
“As personnel were beginning to make their interior fire attack, the balcony sliding glass door burst, indicating heavy fire inside the structure.”
Firefighters found Law about 15 feet from the door of the apartment, as “items inside the apartment made it difficult for firefighters to locate (her),” Smith said.
Law was “unconscious and unresponsive when found,” he said. She was taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
The cause of the fire and Law’s death have not yet been determined. Her body has been sent to the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy, Smith said.
Smith showed The Times what the apartment looked like from the front door. Items filled the entryway from the floor toward the ceiling.
“This is packed down some from where the (firefighters) were climbing on it,” Smith said.
As the firefighters moved into the apartment to battle the blaze, “their helmets were hitting the ceiling, and their air packs … were getting hung up,” Smith said.
The power had been cut off March 15, and Gail had reported that her aunt had asked for matches to burn candles, according to a report from code enforcement.
The fire marshal and a building official had determined March 21 that the unit was no longer safe to inhabit, and Faye was informed she must leave the apartment.
Perry said the hoarding situation first came to the city’s attention in 2015. Between September 2015 and June 2016, Code Enforcement and the woman’s Adult Protective Services case worker visited regularly and coordinated with junk removal companies to clean up the apartment. Faye returned to the home that June.
In January of this year, a plumber contacted the fire marshal about the conditions in the unit, according to a report by Sarah Wilson-Britt, code enforcement manager.
Code enforcement responded and filed a report with Adult Protective Services. Faye’s caseworker, Mindy Sampson, and Wilson-Britt worked with her to address the situation, according to Wilson-Britt’s report.
“Mrs. Sampson and I visited with Ms. Law and strongly encouraged her to reduce her hoard or we would be forced to condemn her unit again,” Wilson-Britt wrote.
Gail said her aunt had been making daily trips to buy thrift items at the Atlanta Union Mission on Oak Street and carrying them to her home in a cart, Wilson-Britt wrote.
On Thursday, March 21, officials met with Faye about condemning her unit, and her caseworker offered to house her for a week at Motel 6.
“We stayed in the breezeway for an hour speaking with Ms. Law and answering questions,” Wilson-Britt wrote.
Sampson made plans to contact a junk removal company to come this week to provide a quote to clean up the apartment.
“I advised Ms. Law I was going to give her 30 days to make progress, and that she was not allowed to be in the unit unless she was there to clean items out,” Wilson-Britt wrote.
Faye was checked in to the Motel 6 Friday, March 22, after bouncing around Thursday night between family and ending the night in the lobby of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, according to Wilson-Britt.
Sampson planned to make a referral Monday for a psychiatric evaluation, according to city officials.
No funeral service had been set as of Tuesday, but that didn’t keep family members from sharing memories of Faye.
“She didn’t want you to help her, but she always wanted to help you,” Gail said. “She did love her family, I can tell you that. And we loved her.”
Shannon Casas contributed to this article.