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FIRE CLAIMS A KIND SOUL

Rachel Hemphill, the Buffalo woman who perished in a house fire early Saturday when she fell from a second-floor window, was blind.

But the 63-year-old woman's family and neighbors say her kindness and love for others gave her special insights into life.

"She was so kind and caring," said Marguerite Jackson, who lived several doors away from the Hemphill residence at 68 Erskine Ave., in the Bailey-Suffolk neighborhood.

Hemphill and her husband, Fred, had opened their two-story brick Cape Cod home to four other family members, authorities said.

At about 2 a.m. Saturday, one of the relatives cooked chicken wings in a frying pan and forgot to turn off the electric stove before going to bed, causing the grease-filled pan to erupt in flames, fire officials said.

"Another family member awoke to the smell of smoke at 4:30 a.m. and alerted the others there was a fire in the kitchen," said Lt. William Dill of the Fire Investigation Bureau. "They evacuated the house, and when they discovered Rachel was trapped upstairs, the smoke was so heavy they couldn't get back up for her."

Next-door neighbor Lisa Harrison awoke to bright flames illuminating the rooms in the second floor of her home.

"The flames lit up my whole upstairs. The fire was going big time. I got up and called 911," Harrison said.

In desperation, Hemphill escaped through her bedroom window and fell about 15 feet onto the frozen ground.

"They brought that poor woman over to my house and into my kitchen. She was unconscious, and we couldn't get any response from her," said Willie Cornelious, who lives across the street.

All Dorothy Cornelious, his wife, could think of was how Hemphill had always put the needs of others first.

"She's been legally blind from diabetes for about 10 years and needs help, but she was a missionary with her church and she would go to sick people's homes and to hospitals to pray for them," Dorothy Cornelious said. "You'd call her up and she'd always be so cheerful. No matter how bad it was, she'd say, 'Oh, praise the Lord, I'm fine.' "

Hemphill, active in the Erskine Avenue Block Club, was a member of the Power of God's Ministry Church of God in Christ on East Utica Street. Born in Ashville, Ala., she came to Buffalo in the early 1960s.

An autopsy determined she died from heart failure brought on by soot and smoke inhalation in the blaze, which gutted the home, according to Fire Investigators Walter Clark and Edwin Ortiz, who assisted Dennis Dixon and Luke Cybulski, the first fire investigators to arrive at the scene. Damage was put at $85,000.

Bill Hill, Hemphill's cousin, stared at the fire-ravaged house in the bitter cold later Saturday morning and found it hard to believe his relative was dead.

"A month ago she went down to Alabama to bury her sister. She came from a big family and she was the only one left of her brothers and sisters," Hill said. "This really is sad. She was a Christian lady, very spiritual."

In addition to her husband, other relatives who escaped the fast-moving blaze were William Hemphill Jr., William Hemphill III, Robert Jones and Rashad Bradford.

Recalling his mother as a healer, John Hemphill said, "She would attend programs at the Blind Association, and if someone wasn't feeling well or needed encouragement, she'd lay her hands on that person and pray.

"The Lord used her to heal sickness. There was no one like my mother. You can't replace her."

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