On her front lawn on Tom Hunter Road in northeast Charlotte, Nellie Davis had a birdbath that was even bigger than the elaborate one in the yard of her next-door neighbor, Selestine Fesperman.
For the 42 years they were neighbors, that was about the only thing between them.
On Saturday afternoon, the birdbath in the Davis yard was covered with a blue tarp, knocked over as firefighters tried to save Davis and her husband, Lonnie Davis Jr., in a house fire early Saturday. But the couple died, officials said.
“Our kids grew up together, played together, went to school together,” Fesperman said Saturday afternoon, still wearing her dressing gown after a long night. There was never a cross word between their houses, she said.
“Forty-two years, neighbors,” she said. “We’re a close-knit neighborhood. People take pride in their homes and and yards. They were all around good people.”
Fesperman said the first sign of trouble came at about 12:30 a.m. She was up late watching TV, knowing she needed to get to sleep because she had to get up and make the coleslaw for her family reunion Saturday afternoon. She heard a noise, looked out front and saw a car stopped in front of the Davises’ house on the busy road.
“Now, that doesn’t look right,” she told herself. Then she heard a sound like someone trying to kick a door in. She called 911 and was told that a fire had been reported next door.
Fire investigators say an electrical malfunction caused the fire, which started in the den. It has been ruled accidental.
It took 27 firefighters about a half-hour to bring the blaze under control. The fire caused about $25,000 in property damage.
Nellie Davis, 74, had had two strokes and used a walker or wheelchair to get around, neighbors said. Lonnie was 73. Both were retired, and WCNC-TV reported that they had been married for more than 50 years.
Two doors up the street, Betty Mobley has known the Davises for more than 30 years. She recalls that the couple went to church every Sunday and Bible study every Wednesday night.
“They were wonderful people,” Mobley said. She was hoping someone from the family had their cat and two dogs, a poodle and a fox terrier.
Along the short row of houses on the 1300 block of Tom Hunter Road, just across Reagan Drive from Interstate 85, the Davises’ house was the only one with two stories. They were a big family, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
They had six or seven daughters and a son, Mobley said. Four of the daughters are still living, all around the West Sugar Creek Road area. Two daughters owned a hair salon together.
“They were by there every day, to see their mama and bring food,” Mobley said.
“They raised their kids well,” Fesperman said. “I wouldn’t have wanted better neighbors. It’s devastating.”
One thing Fesperman said she’ll take from the terrible night: Every spring, when she sees reminders to change the batteries in her smoke detectors, she never pays attention.
“This is a wake-up call for me. From now on, I’m going to pay attention to that.”