Firefighters play Santa for family after fatal blaze
Detroit — For five years, Gloria Baker put off her fiance: They weren't getting married until her son could walk her down the aisle.
So when Patrick R. Baker got out of prison this year, his mother set a date for a huge Valentine's Day wedding. They're still getting married but her son died Nov. 1 after saving his two children, a niece and other relatives from a fire at his brother's home in northeast Detroit.
"It's hard. It's so hard. I wake up every day and shed a few tears," said Baker, 63.
His death threatened to derail Christmas this year, she said. But investigators in the Detroit Fire Department's Arson Squad stepped up, showering them with more than $2,500 in presents Tuesday.
Fire Lt. James Hill-Harris said he led the effort because "we know how bad they're hurting." He's the son of Detroit firefighter Walter Harris, who died in 2008 when a roof collapsed on him while he was fighting an arson fire on the city's east side.
"We lost my Dad really close to Thanksgiving, so I have first-hand experience going into a holiday dealing with something like that," Hill-Harris said.
The family and firefighters gathered at Public Safety Headquarters for lunch, then got down to business. Hill-Harris' 8-year-old daughter, SaVanna, presented stuffed animal puppets and handmade bracelets to Patrick Baker's children, LaDashya, 10, and Patrick Jr., 6, and their cousin, Alana Baker.
"It took me a really long time to make these," she said.
Then, the children opened a big stack of wrapped presents on a table. Among the bounty: A baseball glove and hats, computer tablets, game systems, gift cards and beauty products. After the lunch, Hill-Harris took the three shopping for more gifts.
The children were inside the bungalow on Westphalia near Eight Mile when it caught fire. Baker, 28, was staying with his brother, Lamont, and it had been a festive Halloween night. They went trick-or-treating, ate food and played dominoes, said Gloria Baker.
Baker had been home 21 days after serving 5 1/2 years for assault and weapons charges.
"He wanted to be with the kids as much as possible," his mother said. "He was trying to make up for lost time."
She left late that night for her home across the street. Overnight, the stove was apparently left on and caught fire. Patrick woke up, told LaDashya to jump out the window. He made sure others left and made it outside. Amid the confusion, he returned to the home to try to save others.
Everyone was already out, said Fire Lt. Dennis Richardson.
Gloria Baker said she and other relatives broke windows to try to find her son. She crawled on the floor in search of him. He didn't know the house well, got confused and was trapped in the bathroom, she said.
It's the latest tragedy for the family. Patrick Baker was a triplet but his siblings died at childbirth. Every day, she sees the house that killed her son from her front window.
The children are doing OK, said Beonca Williams, 25, the mother of Patrick Baker Jr.
"LaDashya and Patrick have each other, but she knows her dad isn't coming back," Williams said. "He's still young. He doesn't completely understand it yet."
LaDashya has trouble sleeping. Twice, Patrick has awakened screaming, "fire, fire," Williams said.
Patrick Baker was buried Nov. 14, three months before he was supposed to attend his mother's wedding. The funeral wiped out the family, Gloria Baker said.
"Without the Fire Department, we wouldn't have had Christmas," she said. "God bless you all. Thank you so much."
Detroit firefighters are still collecting money for the children of Patrick Baker, who died saving them from a house fire Nov. 1. To donate, send checks to the Detroit Public Safety Foundation, 1301 Third St., Detroit, MI 48226 or go to the group's website at www.detroitpublicsafetyfoundation.org/patrick-baker-family-fund.