Memory of Fire

updated 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MINNIE EVANS HAS ONLY ONE HAND. IN 1989, when she was pregnant with her fourth child, she discovered a painful lump on her left wrist. It was bone cancer—the kind that spreads like fire. Doctors said she shouldn't have her baby. Chemotherapy would endanger the fetus. Why not have an abortion?

"No," she said. "Saw my arm off. I'll worn about my life later. I'm having this baby."

Minnie's arm was amputated at the elbow, even though the doctors wanted to remove it at the shoulder to diminish the chances of a recurrence. "Nope," she said. "I want a stump to hold my baby."

The steel in Minnie Evans's resolve has been hardened by the life—all 36 years of it—she has lived in the vicinity of Bruce, Miss. (pop. 2,300) in Calhoun County, an impoverished district in the poorest state in the nation. When she was a seventh grader, she helped integrate the all-white schools in the area. She remembers the faces that screamed "Nigger!" at her when she got off the bus. In 1977 Evans spent three months in a hospital after a drunk driver hit her car. Shortly after she married her husband, Walter—a deacon who runs a thriving auto repair shop—she came home and smelled gas. "The stove blew up in my face," she says matter-of-factly. "Burned me good."

But it is not that fire, nor any of the other conflagrations in her life, that weighs so heavily on her memory. The fire Evans cannot put out of her mind took place on Jan. 26, some time after 3 a.m. It killed her aunt Minnie Hall, her aunt's six grandchildren and our great-grandchild. In the daily miasma of crime and tragedy in the news, what happened in Bruce may seem small and far away, a local catastrophe worth maybe a paragraph in a big-city paper. But no one in Bruce has been able to forget the fire. Minnie Evans hasn't allowed them to.

In early January, Minnie Hall moved herself and the children in her charge into an apartment in the destitute black half of Bruce. Its walls were plasterboard and plywood. The landlord—who asked $200 a month from the welfare grandmother—had covered its two windows with steel bars to keep the neighborhood junkies away. But the bars also made it impossible for anyone inside to get out. On the night of Jan. 26, neighbors noticed flames shooting from the shack and rushed over to help. The children were screaming. They saw Anthony Gaston, 15, trying to push his 51-day-old niece, Tanisha, out through the bars. She wouldn't fit. When someone kicked the door down, the rush of air sent a fireball gusting through the doorway, driving back the neighbors. One of them reached for Anthony's leg, and the boy's skin came off in his hands as Anthony fell back into the flames.

Landlord George Chandler, 82, who lived next door—and who owns many of the low-income rental houses in the area—woke to shrieking sirens and neighbors. Chandler, known to all as Mr. George, stumbled from his bed and looked out the window. "I saw them flames and figured them people inside were all dead," he says. "There was nothin' I could do, so I went back to bed. I didn't do nothin' wrong."

In the smoke, firefighters found Minnie Evans's aunt Minnie, 53, dead on her bed, clutching her great-granddaughter Tanisha. Tanisha's mother, Tywanda Shonta Gaston, 14, was sprawled oh the floor. She had been on maternity leave from the seventh grade. Her brothers, Anthony, Prince, 11, and Charles, 9, and sisters Bonnie, 7, and Barbara, 13, lay elsewhere in the rubble. "It was a death trap," says Bruce fire chief Charles Rogers. "No smoke alarms, no fire extinguishers, and it was barred up too much."

More than 1,000 people, black and white, filled the Bruce High School gymnasium for the funeral. Among them was Ether Ree Hall Gaston, mother of six of the dead children. Doing time for drug trafficking, she was let out of prison for the day. There was no money, so the Bank of Mississippi established a fund, raising $7,000—enough for three caskets and the burial. The funeral home made the eight bodies fit.

As the funeral ended, many of the people of Bruce sought explanations. "God wanted them babies, and so He called them home," said one woman. Many agreed that whatever happened, God had ordained it. But Minnie Evans, a deacon's wife, did not. "They died before their time," she said. "The day they got burned I looked at those apartments, and it brought out anger and grief in me. I looked at those windows, and I said, 'Why did this man put those bars up there, and why does the city allow that?' "

Three days after the funeral, Minnie Evans and her friend Hazel Hearvey, a nurse's aide, organized a church meeting to do something about local fire laws. They brought together about 25 parents and led them into the next meeting of the board of aldermen. The delegation requested that fire chief Charles Rogers produce the town's building code. "We don't have no building codes," he replied. At that point, Evans and the others asked that the town adopt one. They were received politely, and the aldermen agreed to look into establishing fire and building codes. But Evans and her group were going to make sure that they did. "We mean business," she said. "Whatever it takes, sleeping on the street in front of city hall, we'll do it."

Said Hazel: "I don't think we're asking for nothing that's not right to have. Many of us, as black people we fail to get lots of things done because we don't know what we're entitled to." Meanwhile, news of the fire shocked and embarrassed the state legislature. In April the governor signed into law a measure requiring that barred windows be easily opened from inside. Evans answered with a prayer: "Lord, I thank you. My family lost their lives in the fire, but you blessed us to get this law passed." She adds, "Sometimes folks do the right thing, and it makes you feel good."

Evans is now getting on with her own life. While attending her cancer support group, she decided to become a doctor. "I figured the Lord gave me cancer for a reason, and when I prayed about it, becoming a doctor seemed to be the reason." She applied to the University of Mississippi and will be a freshman in the fall term. She will be paying her own way. "I know what it's like to be sick and to fight to get better, so I'd like to help other people."

HOWARD G. CHUA-EOAN
BILL SHAW with DONNA FERRATO in Bruce

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