The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By David Stevens
Publisher 

Opinion: Clovis fire victims never had a chance

Family leader 'the toughest lady you ever want to know.'

 

Last updated 3/2/2021 at 9:14pm



William Nelson still isn’t sure how it started. But his mother and two brothers had no chance to escape their three-bedroom trailer when fire broke out in his brother Al’s room about 4 a.m. on Feb. 23.

Al Nelson, 65, was paralyzed and couldn’t walk. The knees of brother Johnie Lee Brewer, 77, were filled with fluid and so swollen he could barely walk. And their mother, Leona Drake, 95, had returned home just a day earlier from the hospital after fracturing her pelvis.

“I woke up about 4:30 (a.m.), and all I could see through my curtains were blue lights and red lights flashing,” said William Nelson, who lives in his own trailer behind the other. “I could see flames and smoke shooting up. I knew right then it was bad.

“I walked up there and they sat me in the back seat of a police car. I kept asking ‘Is my family dead?’ They kept saying ‘We don’t’ know.’ Finally, one lady, a sheriff’s investigator, told me they were all gone.”

Investigators this week have still not confirmed an official cause of the fire; they have determined it was likely accidental.

The 80-foot trailer his mother bought about 1994 and most everything in it was destroyed. Two dogs also died.

William Nelson’s trailer escaped damage, but he lost electricity and was still working a week later to have it restored. An electrician friend of a friend had volunteered his time to try and get the power back. William is trying to figure out a way to pay for permits.

All four family members lived on Social Security. They had no insurance. William said a friend set up a Go Fund Me page - Leona, Johnie, and Alva funeral fund - which had $700 in it Tuesday morning.

The boys grew up in Clovis, ventured out of state a while, but returned home at their mother’s request in the mid-1990s.

William and John were hanging sheetrock in California when their mother called.

“Mom was a mother hen and she decided she wanted everybody together,” William said. “She was starting to get sick and wanted me to take care of stuff.”

They all moved to the 400 block of South Wheaton Street in 1996. “We all just pitched in and took care of each other,” William said.

He described his mother, an Arkansas native, as “the toughest lady you ever want to know.”

When Leona was 18, her dad lost his legs in a railroad accident after the family moved to Clovis. She was pregnant with John at the time, but traveled with her dad to Minnesota for medical treatment.

“They rode the train up there,” William said. “Mom had never driven in her life, but Grandpa bought her a new Chrysler 300 and she drove them all the way back home.”

Leona Drake took charge as needed throughout her life.

“She ran several businesses. She ran a private club behind Foxy’s Drive-In for a while. She ran the Copper Penny for a long time. She worked at Levi Strauss for a little while,” William said. She worked her way through five marriages.

All three boys spent much of their working lives putting up sheetrock. The labor was particularly taxing for John and Al who both had to have back surgeries as a result.

“They were both little, skinny guys,” William said. “They weren’t built for it like I was.”

Al suffered the most. In his last few years, he couldn’t even sit up in bed; he lay flat all the time. “He got completely down about a year ago,” William said. “He’d been hurt years and years.”

All three of his family members depended on William, 69, for most everything in recent years.

“I took care of all the bills; took care of all their finances, trips to Lubbock to see the doctor, to go to hospitals,” he said. “I was the only one able to do all that. That’s why my mom brought me here, and God gave me the strength to do it.”

William Nelson said he hasn’t thought much about the future without his mother and brothers. “There’s too much to think about,” he said.

Mornings have been the hardest the past week.

“That’s when I’d get up and go check on everybody. And now they’re not there to go check on.”

David Stevens is publisher for The Eastern New Mexico News. Contact him:

[email protected]

 
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