Kittie Johnson died Wednesday night when flames tore through the small wooden house just north of St. Francisville where she lived alone, leaving her trapped inside her bedroom and unable to escape — possibly because she took extra precautions to securely lock the doors and windows, her family said Thursday.
Johnson, 54, had called 911 to report the fire around 6:40 p.m., seeking help and telling dispatchers she was trying to escape her burning house on Solitude Road, according to West Feliciana Parish Fire Chief James Wood.
The fire started in the kitchen toward the back of the house, Assistant Chief Walter Oliveaux said from the scene Thursday morning. He said Johnson told dispatchers she couldn’t open the front door or the bedroom window — both opposite where the fire started but possibly nailed shut — and flames were blocking the back door.
Her body was found on the bed of the home where she had lived alone for the past several years.
West Feliciana sheriff’s deputies responded to the 911 call first and kicked in the front door but were not able to enter the house because the smoke and heat were too intense, Oliveaux said. Firefighters arrived a few minutes later and spent about 30 minutes battling the flames before they could go inside.
Wood said the fire was "very hot and very intense" in part because the house was an old wooden structure that burned rapidly.
Leangela Handy, whose great-grandmother helped raise Johnson, said Johnson worried about living alone and always tried to get home safely before nighttime. She had lived in the small home on Solitude Road for more than 10 years.
"She was always in before dark … never let the dark catch her," Handy said at the scene Friday morning, gazing with disbelief into the burnt out house. "That’s how we knew she died in there."
Handy said several family members gathered at the scene for hours Wednesday night awaiting an official death announcement, hoping against the odds that Johnson might not have been home when the fire started.
Johnson grew up in the St. Francisville area and graduated from West Feliciana High School as an honor roll student, Handy said. She lived in the community her entire life and was well known within the community through her involvement with the St. Luke Baptist Church.
"Kittie was just a kind and friendly person. She loved to joke around … always gave Christmas presents to my nieces and nephews and remembered everyone’s birthday," she said. "Lord, you just never know. … She’s in a better place now."
Leon and Lenora Rayford, who live across the street from Johnson, said she had just stopped by their house on Christmas Day to visit with them and their daughter, her childhood friend. They said tragic events hit especially hard in their small rural community.
Someone had left a bouquet of flowers near the front steps of the house where Johnson died, and two black cats scampered through the yard Friday morning.
Investigators returned to the scene Friday to continue collecting information that could help them determine exactly how the fire started.
Oliveaux said Johnson was using her gas stove for heat, which caused nearby objects including a loveseat to catch on fire.
Smoke detectors could not be heard in the background during the 911 call, Oliveaux said, which could mean none were installed inside the house. He emphasized their importance, noting that most fire departments have programs to install smoke detectors for people unable to afford them.
"Time is your enemy in situations like this," he said. "The last thing you want to do is give that up."