published Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Community rallies around family after fire at St. Elmo home

Loretta Morris becomes emotional while speaking to an insurance adjuster on the phone while her grandson Tedarious Morris, 3, sleeps on the couch at the Country Inn & Suites where they they have been staying since their St. Elmo house burned down last week.
Loretta Morris becomes emotional while speaking to an insurance adjuster on the phone while her grandson Tedarious Morris, 3, sleeps on the couch at the Country Inn & Suites where they they have been staying since their St. Elmo house burned down last week.
Photo by Dan Henry.
HOW TO HELP

An account to help Loretta Morris and her family resettle after the fire has been set up at First Tennessee Bank. For more information about how to make a donation, call 423-265-0537.

For item donations, contact Joy Devlin at 423-316-4015.

For years, the pink house on the corner of St. Elmo Avenue and 47th Street was a neighborhood fixture -- as was Loretta Morris, the woman who lived there.

Morris, now 72, moved into the house more than a decade ago after her mother, who lived there a decade before her, passed away. It was the family house, always buzzing with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren underfoot. Toys filled the yard.

On Halloween, Morris' daughter Melissa would bedeck the porch with spiderwebs and monster memorabilia, while on Christmas the family would put candy canes in the yard and hang white lights.

To the children Morris helped raise as a caretaker on Lookout Mountain, it was "Retta's house," where they would come to pick her up or play in the yard.

This summer, neighbors watched as the old home was refurbished with a new roof and fresh coat of pink paint. Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise selected the family for a loan to help them weatherize the house and rid it of lead. The house had never looked better.

On Nov. 5, the pink house on the corner was swallowed in flames. Morris, her daughter and two young grandsons were sleeping in the house when they awoke to thick, black smoke billowing from the back of the house.

The family made it out as the flames melted the refrigerator, glass began to shatter and smoke poured into the street.

"I'm 72 years old, and I have to start all over," said Morris, holding her head at a table in the Country Inn and Suites in Lookout Valley, where she has been staying with her 23-year-old grandson and great-grandchildren since the fire.

"But I think I've been blessed," she added. "Better than blessed. It could have been much worse."

A large part of the blessing, Morris says, is that the neighborhood she loved and the children she raised have done their best to make sure that she does not have to start over alone.

While Morris was being treated for smoke inhalation and moving into a hotel with her family, St. Elmo resident Joy Devlin -- who lives several blocks away from Morris -- was on her computer and noticed several messages about the fire had showed up on the neighborhood email chain. Neighbors were sharing information about the fire, and voicing concerns about the family displaced from the home.

"I realized everyone was concerned and wanted to help, but were most likely prohibited by time -- which I had," Devlin said. "I had time and nothing else to donate. That moved me to do something."

Through emails, Devlin began coordinating a response effort. More than 50 people throughout St. Elmo offered to chip in with donations of money, clothes, household items and labor, if needed.

So far, the neighborhood has raised more than $500 to help pay for Morris' lodging at the hotel after the Red Cross assistance ran out and to help buy meals and gasoline. Another neighbor offered to watch her dog. Two St. Elmo restaurants -- the St. Elmo Deli and Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe -- have offered the family free meals.

Morris' 17-year-old grandson, who lived with her, has been offered a place to stay with his basketball coach from Lookout Valley High School. The coach also has been helping the teen find new basketball gear since his was lost in the fire.

"It has been amazing to see, just this real incredible outpouring from folks I either don't know or don't know well," Morris said as Devlin handed her a winter hat and scarf from a young woman in the neighborhood.

A card from the woman read: "May God bless you and your family in this time."

Meanwhile, Morris has been in constant contact with her "second family," the now-grown children she helped raise on Lookout Mountain for more than 30 years.

She first started working at the home of prominent Chattanooga-based developer Franklin Haney in 1974, helping to raise the family's five children from the time they were born to the time they graduated from high school.

"They had four girls and one boy. I had four boys and a girl," recalls Morris laughing. "It was a handful."

"Retta was there from the time we were born to the time we went off to college," said Mae Haney Grennan, the second oldest of the Haney children. "Even then we'd come home from school, and Retta would be there to visit with us."

Grennan is now an attorney in Washington, D.C., where three of her siblings also live. Another sibling lives in California, and Franklin Haney and his wife, Emeline, primarily live in Florida. But Morris is still a big part of their life, Grennan said. Morris has continued to help raise the next generation -- even visiting Washington to help Grennan with her children. And the Haneys have continued to supplement her income through retirement.

The Haney family knew the pink house on the corner well. So when a friend of Grennan's sent her a text with a photo of the smoking home, Grennan called Morris, checking to see if she was OK.

"She's family for us," explained Grennan.

Since then, Grennan has been working with Morris' insurance agents and the family has been helping the Morrises find an apartment. Though the Morris family is attached to the pink house, inspectors have told them it would cost more to repair the burned-out structure than to rebuild it.

Chattanooga investigators have determined that the fire was started by an unattended candle left on the back porch.

The family has found an affordable apartment in Lookout Valley that they say will be a good fit for now, though they will miss St. Elmo.

"It will hopefully be for the best. But we're going to miss the memories," said daughter Melissa Morris. "They are going to always be there. From all the years in that neighborhood."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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