“I tried my best to get over to the action. By the time I got over there, it was too quick. But I heard her cry out for help and when I heard that, I just couldn’t ignore the situation.” STANFORD WILSON, speaking in 2004 after the incident in which he rushed to aid dying Baton Rouge Police Lt. Vicki Wax
Stanford Wilson, recognized for his bravery nearly a decade ago in an attempt to save a Baton Rouge police officer who was fatally shot at a Wal-Mart, died Friday morning after running into a roaring house fire in an attempt to rescue some friends he believed were trapped inside the flaming home.
Baton Rouge firefighters arrived at the home in the 700 block of North 28th Street at 1:47 a.m. Friday to find the house completely engulfed in flames, said Curt Monte, a Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman.
Firefighters on scene soon figured out that at least two people had made it out of the burning home, but that another man, later identified as Wilson, was probably still inside the blazing two-story house, Monte said.
“The fire was so intense that the second story of the home collapsed shortly after the arrival of the firefighters,” temporarily hindering a possible rescue attempt of Wilson, Monte said. “Once that roof collapse starts to occur, we have to pull firefighters out for their safety.”
Some time later, but before the fire was under control, firefighters found Wilson’s body in a back room of the house.
The cause of the deadly blaze remained under investigation Friday evening, Monte said.
Lena Baker, Wilson’s neighbor, heard a series of loud “pops” coming from next door early Friday morning.
“I thought it was bullets,” Baker said, “but it was the (window) glasses popping. And when I opened the front door, all I could see was a blazing fire. It was raging.”
Firefighters directed Baker to immediately exit her house because it was so close to the fire, she said. Baker, a retired school teacher who has lived next door to the home for about 50 years, then grabbed a purse , leaving behind nearly all her possessions.
“When the coroner drove up, we knew it had to be Stanford,” said Baker, who commended firefighters’ efforts early Friday morning.
“They gave it their all,” she said. “And they saved my house.”
The white wood paneling along the side of Baker’s home had been burned to shades of gray and black on some areas of the outer wall. The roof had some damage, and the kitchen blinds had melted, she said.
But the house, separated from the burned-down structure by a chain-length fence and a few feet of grass, remained largely unscathed in the blaze.
“That fire, oh, it was horrible,” Baker said. “If (firefighters) had not worked the way they did, I would not have a house today.”
The persistent flames took hours to control, but did not spread to any neighboring houses, fire officials said.
Fredrick Millican, Wilson’s cousin, drove to the North 28th Street location Friday afternoon to survey the damage. He said Wilson woke up everyone staying in the house to get them out safely during the fire. Several of Wilson’s friends, who Millican said were probably homeless, had been staying with Wilson recently, a testament to the man’s kind, caring temperament.
“Stan would do anything to help somebody out,” Millican said.
In the summer of 2004, Wilson was recognized by city officials after suffering several gunshot wounds in an attempt to save Lt. Vickie Wax, who was fatally shot May 22 of that year while trying to detain a shoplifting suspect at the old Wal-Mart on Perkins Road. The suspect, later identified as Shedran Williams, knocked Wax to the ground, grabbed her gun and shot her, Wilson and a store security guard during a confrontation.
“I tried my best to get over to the action,” Wilson said after the shooting. “By the time I got over there, it was too quick. But I heard her cry out for help and when I heard that, I just couldn’t ignore the situation.”
Wilson said that he believed that if he had reacted a few seconds sooner, Wax, a 27-year police veteran, might still be alive.
On Friday, neighbors said those same instincts kicked in, which this time around cost Wilson, 60, his life.
Wilson apparently helped several people escape Friday morning, but then brazenly re-entered the burning home to find at least two other people staying at the home, Millican said.
“(Firefighters) found him on his knees at the back door,” Millican said, surveying the remains of the house where he grew up spending Sunday afternoons and long summer days with his family.
Two of Millican’s uncles, both carpenters, built the house decades ago, filling it with hand-made furniture, an attribute that Millican said probably contributed to the fire’s ferocity.
“Once that old wood gets going, it’s not going to stop immediately,” Millican said. “It’s going to burn.”
A shed Millican’s uncles once used as a workshop stood untouched by the fire behind the pile of rubble.
Bulldozers had already been to the location around 7 a.m. Friday, and had pushed together books, tables, a shoe, a water bottle and a torn blue T-shirt, among other belongings, creating a roughly 15-foot-tall mess of charred building materials.
“You might not have the physical building anymore, but you still have the memories inside,” Millican said.
Jimmy Williams, Wilson’s neighbor, said when his dog woke him up early Friday the house was already in flames.
“That fire just didn’t want to go out,” Williams said.
Friday afternoon, Williams climbed into the rubble pile, searching for anything of value and wishing that his friend hadn’t gone into the burning home.
“After 40 years, you just can’t sum it all up in one word,” Williams said of his relationship with Wilson. “If only he wouldn’t have went back up in there.”