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Matriarch dies in house fire

MANATEE -- Eva Mae Pompey’s house was a gathering place for family and fun times for all of her 81 years on the 2000 block of Fifth Avenue East in Palmetto.

But Friday morning the black and burned out shell was a gathering place for Pompey’s grieving family.

The 81-year-old Pompey, known all over Palmetto for her zealous churchgoing and her passion for her Christian faith, died in a fire that engulfed her four-bedroom wooden home about 1 a.m. Friday, according to North River Fire District officials.

“Everything about her was wonderful,” said niece Harriet Higgs, 62, who called Pompey “Auntie” as did many others who respected her as one of the matriarchs of her family.

A 911 call was received at North River Fire at 1:05 a.m. Friday and two engines were on the scene less in than five minutes, said North River Fire Marshal Ron Cales.

When firefighters entered the home, they found Pompey just a few feet from the back door and the smoke detector beeping loudly. A crew administered first aid to Pompey but she could not be revived, Cales said.

The area where Pompey was found was unburned at the time, Cales said.

“We believe Mrs. Pompey was alerted and tried to escape,” Cales said. “She may have been overcome by smoke and harmful gases. She was 81.

“A cigarette might have caused the blaze,” Cales said. “It may have been dropped on a bed in the back room. That’s where the fire started.”

Cales said he considers the fire accidental and has no intention of filing any charges.

An official with the Manatee County building department was at the house Friday, but it was unknown if it can be repaired, Cales said.

“She was a churchgoing spiritual lady who loved the Lord and loved her family,” Higgs said. “No one ever went in need with Auntie. She took care of us all.”

Neighbors said the house burst into flames quickly.

“At 1:01 a.m. the flames were in full force,” said neighbor Carolyn Hallstead, who lives a few houses down. “If I had known she was in the front room I would have tried to get her. But it was too far gone. I couldn’t see anything but flames.”

“She was the only one here at the time of the fire,” said Higgs, who added that Pompey’s son does live in the house. “He wasn’t here,” Higgs said of the son.

Family members painted a picture of a woman who lived in the same house all her life and had opened her arms to anyone in need.

“She was very friendly, very nice,” Hallstead said of Pompey.

“She loves the Lord,” said a friend, Earnestine Hart, who came by Friday to see if she could help. “She’s always in church.”

Hart said there were often people staying in the back room where the son lived.

“She kept them all fed,” Hart said. “It was the family home. You could live there for free if you needed to.”

Pompey’s son does have a safe place to stay, Cales said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.