Savannah Fire captain returns forgotten family treasures after house burns

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Savannah Fire Capt. Chela Gutierrez noticed something colorful peeking out of the attic while conducting training exercises at a Cumming Street property scheduled for demolition. It turned out to be long-forgotten family treasures.

The building was on the verge of collapse and had been vacant for decades. Gutierrez found old homework papers, prayer cards, encyclopedias, a tattered suitcase, and a bag of hand-stitched quilts that caught her eye.

“I saw these trash bags and one was ripped a little bit. I saw this brightly colored fabric,” Gutierrez said. “That let me know that there are some forgotten things here. So I pulled it down and sure enough, it was a bag of quilts.”

Gutierrez did some investigating to find the family that the items belonged to. Using a funeral notice and the help of staff from the Municipal Archives and Human Services departments, Gutierrez discovered Emma Freeman Williams owned the Cumming Street house. Family members say she quilted by hand until she lost her sight.

“I could tell it was hand-stitched because my grandmother quilted and my mother did fabric art. So I could tell by the knots and the way that the fabric was pulling on it that it wasn’t a machine stitch,” Gutierrez said. “It was somebody’s history that had been forgotten.”

Emma Williams lived in the home with her daughter until she died at age 102 in 2000. When her daughter, Etolier Williams Garvin died in 2002, the home was left to her grandchildren, Jewell and Connie Williams.

Jewell Williams was living in the home when the fire broke out. He was displaced by the blaze and assumed everything inside had been destroyed.

Gutierrez surprised Jewell and his daughter Carla with news of the discovery. She took them on a walk-through of the house and reunited them with Jewell’s grandmother’s quilts.

“They have to have that closure. It’s a horrible day you’re having when your house catches on fire. And to think he never got to go back through! That’s nobody’s fault, he just didn’t know,” Gutierrez said.

“I said, ‘now is your time. We’re going back through.’ It felt really good to let him have that. That closure,” she added.

The Savannah Fire Department wants to remind the community that after a fire, homeowners can request a walkthrough with firefighters to recover their belongings.

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