MOUNT HOLLY As Sue Benfield remembers it, she was looking around her neighborhood as she talked on the phone Monday afternoon.
From the front porch, she saw a Gaston County Schools bus roll along Pine Street. She noticed her childhood friend, Roy Farmer, using a leaf blower to clean his sidewalk.
Benfield turned her head for a second. When she looked again, she spotted smoke near Farmer's residence.
“I told my sister Roy must be burning tires – that's how it smelled,” said Benfield, 70. “Then I yelled, ‘The house is on fire.'''
Farmer was no longer in the yard. Neighbors said that he would have known his wife of more than 50 years, Gloria “Chuck” Farmer, was in a wheelchair inside the house and couldn't escape. Farmer went back in an effort to save her. The couple died in the blaze.
On Tuesday, as investigators were trying to determine the cause of the fire, neighbors remembered the Farmers and reflected on how quickly a normal afternoon had turned tragic.
Benfield and Roy Farmer grew up in the North Belmont textile community and went to the same elementary and high school. When she moved to Pine Street in 1968, he was already living there, three houses down from her.
“Roy was always sitting outside on the porch and had a wave for everybody when they passed,” Benfield said.
But his connection to neighbors was more than casual, she said.
Six years ago, Benfield said her husband died in a house fire. “Roy helped me out during those times,” Benfield said. “He gave me a lot of moral support.”
Susan Price, 58, who lives in front of the Farmer residence, appreciated Roy Farmer's attentiveness to her elderly mother, who lives next door.
“Almost every afternoon he'd go sit on the porch and talk to her,” Price said. “They'd talk about anything – people up and down the street. Anything that rolled through their minds. I really appreciated him keeping an old person company.”
Price said Farmer was also attentive to his wife.
“She was a very sweet lady. She got sick a couple of years ago,” Price said. “He never left her by herself for very long – maybe six or seven minutes when he'd run to the restaurant or grocery.”
Like Benfield, Price was also talking on the phone Monday afternoon while gazing around the neighborbood.
One minute she saw Roy Farmer using the blower, she said. She turned and looked again and saw fire coming out the front door of his home.
Price dialed 911 and ran toward the residence, meeting Benfield and her son, Chris, both headed in the same direction. They noticed Farmer's blower tossed onto the ground – still operating.
Price opened the front door but thick smoke drove her back. Chris Benfield tried unsuccessfuly to get in a side door.
All three of them were yelling for Farmer. They got no answer.
A feeling of helplessness settled in.
“We couldn't do anything to get them out,” Benfield said. “It was horrible. My heart was breaking.”
Firefighters found Gloria Farmer dead in the living room, where investigators said the fire appeared to be the most intense.
Roy Farmer was found near the side door. He apparently had been overcome by smoke and was rushed to Gaston Memorial Hospital, where he died a short time later.
“I think he was a hero,” Price said. “He went back in that burning house to try and save his wife. There was no way you could have kept him out. No way.”