Thursday, February 12, 2009
Reunited 40 Years Later
February 12, 2009
In 1968, a white firefighter saved a black baby girl, touching the heart of a divided city. The two did not meet again. Until yesterday.
The firefighter crawled on his stomach through the pitch-black apartment, the smoke so thick he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. Somewhere inside was a baby and he had to find her.
A window broke, light filled the room, and he saw her lying in her crib, dressed only in a diaper, unconscious. Soot covered her tiny nose. She wasn't breathing and had no pulse.
He grabbed her and breathed life into her as he ran from the apartment.
A newspaper photograph captured their image - a white firefighter from South Boston with his lips pressed to the mouth of a black baby from the Roxbury public housing development - at a time when riots sparked by racial tensions were burning down American cities.
But despite this most intimate of introductions, they remained strangers. William Carroll won a commendation for the rescue, stayed on the job another 34 years, and retired. Evangeline Harper grew up, lost her family to drugs and illness, had six children of her own, and became a nursing and teaching assistant. And through it all someone would often tell her the story about the day she almost died and the man who would not let it happen. She always wanted to meet him and say thank you.
Yesterday, more than 40 years after the fire, she finally did.
In the neighborhood where they first met, Carroll, a slim 71-year-old, got out of his car, dressed in a navy blue uniform he had borrowed from a fellow firefighter, strode up to the 40-year-old woman, and beamed.
"You've grown a lot since the last time I saw you," he said, laughing and putting out his hand. She smiled, gently took his hand, and looked at him almost shyly.
"Thank you so much for remembering me," he told her.
Then he pulled her into a tight embrace and they held on to each other as they stood on Keegan Street, just a few yards from where he had carried her limp body decades ago.
"Thank you so much," she said softly.
The Globe arranged the meeting after Evangeline Harper, now Evangeline Anderson, introduced herself to a reporter at a community meeting and asked for help tracking down Carroll.
Anderson, who now lives in Dorchester, had tried twice before to locate the firefighter, first when she was 18, after her adoptive mother told her about the rescue, and again right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
She tried to get his address from the Fire Department, but they said they could not give out personal information. She left her name and phone number, but never heard back.
"I thought, 'Oh, forget it. He probably doesn't remember," she said. " 'He's not interested.'
That could not have been further from the truth.
"Evangeline Harper," Carroll said. "I'll never forget her name if I live to be 100 years old."
He heard once that she had been trying to get in touch with him, but somehow her phone number was lost and he did not know how to reach her.
For a while, Anderson stopped looking. Then, she heard the news about Lieutenant Kevin M. Kelley, the firefighter who was killed in January after his firetruck crashed into a Mission Hill building.
" 'Oh my God, this could have been this gentleman, and I never got a chance to say thank you,' " she recalled thinking. "I didn't want him to leave this earth or I to leave this earth without saying thank you."
Yesterday, she brought her youngest child, 6-year-old Reginald, and her godmother, Jacqueline Greer, who witnessed the rescue. For the meeting, Anderson swept her hair in a curly updo and carefully applied lip gloss.
The women brought Carroll a giant stuffed bear, and a thank-you card tucked inside an envelope addressed "To Our Hero."
Richard Paris, vice president of the firefighters union, stood nearby with Carroll's wife and little Reginald, who kicked at the frozen snow on the sidewalk as Greer, Carroll, and Anderson reminisced about the neighborhood. Gone were the brick high-rises that had once formed Orchard Park. In their place were two-level attached apartments painted in pastels and browns.
"I haven't been here in so long," Carroll said.
No one could remember exactly what started the fire on Nov. 7, 1968, but Greer said it began in the family's kitchen. Carroll, who was assigned to Engine 3, heard the report of children trapped in a burning building.
When Carroll arrived, Greer was at the scene, screaming and crying hysterically.
Carroll saved Evangeline, while Firefighter Charles Connolly rescued her 17-month-old brother, Gerry, and handed him to Lieutenant Joseph O'Donnell, who gave the boy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"He just cared," Greer, now 60, said of Carroll. "It wasn't that the child was black or she was white. It was a child and he was trying his best to bring her back her life."
Yesterday, both remembered who was missing from the reunion. Connolly and O'Donnell died long ago of heart problems. Anderson's brother Gerry succumbed to pneumonia as a toddler. Her grief-stricken mother turned to drugs for comfort, and died of an overdose at age 25. Her two sisters died young of natural causes. Last year, Anderson lost both her adoptive mother and uncle.
"I wish my friends . . . were here," Carroll said. "But they're up there watching over us."
"That's what I say about my family," Anderson said.
The two quickly built a rapport. He asked about her children, and she told him her eldest son was studying forensic science in college and how musical her other children are.
He told her he wanted to get to know her, and she promised to cook him some soul food.
"Oh, baby," he said, laughing. "I love it, but my stomach don't."
Carroll then took the group for lunch at Florian Hall, the union's headquarters, where Carroll still goes every week for coffee with friends or to help fellow retirees with healthcare questions. Over sandwiches, the group looked at old black-and-white photos of that day and traded stories about the challenges of raising children.
Carroll bonded with Anderson's son, who drew a picture of himself holding Carroll's hand.
Parting in the parking lot, Carroll hugged Greer and Anderson and told Reginald to call him.
"There's your new grandpa," Anderson said to her son.
"What a beautiful day," the retired firefighter said as he turned and walked back inside.