By Kathy Jefcoats
A Stockbridge man who spent his life helping others died in an early Wednesday morning fire after alerting a live-in friend to the blaze.
The friend, known only as Summer, escaped through a window. The homeowner, Emmett Williford, was found dead in the hallway outside her bedroom door.
"He would give you the shirt off his back," said Johanna Williford, 29, the oldest of his three children. "He saved her life, made sure she got out, but died himself. That's just the way he was. He was always helping other people."
Henry County fire spokeswoman Capt. Sabrina Puckett said a kerosene space heater caused the blaze that destroyed Williford's single-wide mobile home.
"The heater was sitting on a drop cord, causing an uneven surface," said Puckett at the scene Wednesday. "The wick fell on the floor, setting it on fire."
A neighbor called 911 around 2 a.m. Summer, who lived with her boyfriend in one of Williford's two bedrooms, got out through her room window. She was taken to Grady for treatment of burns.
Summer's boyfriend had just left the house to go to work shortly before the fire started, Johanna Williford said. She didn't know his name or Summer's last name.
Williford celebrated his 52nd birthday on Christmas Day. He lived in the single-wide mobile home at 36 Reeves Road in Stockbridge for about 15 years, his daughter said.
Johanna, sister Jenny Williford, 25, and their mother, Lois Williford, went to the burned structure Wednesday afternoon. Emmett Williford also had three grandchildren, 8, 3 and 2, and a son, Josh, 27.
Friends and neighbors dropped by to console the family and swap stories. One left a heart-shaped memorial with a tiny panda bear and red rose next to the heater sitting in the driveway.
Nearby, an adult-sized body bag sat in its unopened wrapper as a grim reminder of the loss the Williford family suffered.
The family learned about the death on the television news.
"They said the girl had been taken to Grady and a man in his 50s didn't make it," said Johanna Williford. "And when they showed a picture of the trailer." She stopped talking, looked at the photo of her dad she was holding in her hand and teared up slightly.
Johanna Williford said she understands the dangers of using a space heater.
"I hate those kerosene heaters," she said. "They are just an accident waiting to happen."
Puckett agreed, offering some guidance on the usage of such heaters.
"Although this is a very unfortunate incident, it is highly possible that it was preventable and there are always lessons to be learned," she said. "The Henry County Fire Department strongly urges citizens to use heating sources with great care, following the manufacturer's instructions fully. Never leave a space heater unattended and always place it at least 3 feet from any combustible material."
Emmett Williford was a tree surgeon for Budget Tree Service, a local company known by its bright green T-shirts.
"He was a tree surgeon since he was 18," said Johanna. "That's all he ever did. And he wore those green shirts all the time. I always thought when he died, it would be in a fall from a tree, since he'd fallen twice before."
In fact, Emmett Williford had a plate in his right arm from a work injury.
"That's how they identified his body," she said.
Shay Rapes grew up with Johanna, Jenny and Josh.
"I'd known Emmett since I was a kid," said Rapes. "He was a good guy, generous and kind. He was happy-go-lucky and always had a smile on his face. He was super laid-back."
Rapes remembered Josh taking change Emmett collected in 5-gallon buckets.
"He'd use a screwdriver and break into where the money was kept and take whatever change he needed," Rapes said. "His dad always found out but he wouldn't yell at him about it. He told him, ?If you need money, boy, just ask for it. Don't be tearing up my stuff.'"
The fire fatality is the second one in Henry County in about six months, said Puckett, but the first one this year. However, there was at least one fire this winter in Henry County caused by a space heater, she said.