The same story has played through Kelly Baldwin’s mind for more than 50 years and the images of a cool fall day have left a not so pretty picture imprinted in his mind forever, as he continues to seek closure of a horrible situation.
In the fall of 1962 or 1963 (Baldwin isn’t sure of the exact year), the young agriculture teacher at Midway High School started his school day just as he always did. During these years, agriculture teachers often served in livestock veterinary roles and Baldwin says he was just involving his students in the learning process when he and about four or five of his students went during class to another student’s house to castrate a bull.
As Baldwin and the students drove north on U.S. 421 towards N.C. 242, just south of Spivey’s Corner, none of them noticed anything out of the ordinary. Once at the student’s house, Baldwin and the other students would learn the bull had escaped from capture, so they all headed back to school.
“We were only at the student’s house for about 10 minutes when we left and headed back to the school,” Baldwin said as he sat down last week and shared the tales of his horrific experience with The Sampson Independent.
Returning to school, Baldwin said as he and his students crossed U.S. 13, just in the distance, about one-fourth of a mile down the road, they saw smoke and could easily tell something was on fire.
“I knew there was a student who lived in that area who had just dropped out of school,” Baldwin shared. Not remembering the student’s entire name, he knows the last name was Smith.
When the group honed in on the house, Baldwin said he realized it belonged to that student who had just left school weeks earlier. At that point, he said, the house was fully engulfed in flames and after searching the premises, Baldwin and his students found no survivors.
“We knew it was bad,” Baldwin said. “We just walked around hoping to find someone and see what could be done to help.”
Just when Baldwin said he thought there was no hope of finding anyone alive, one of his students called from behind the house and asked the agriculture teacher to come and look.
“There, in a ditch, behind the house, that student was laying,” Baldwin said. “Hollywood couldn’t create anything that looked like what we saw.”
Baldwin said the student was coherent, but all of his clothing had been burned off. His skin, which doctors eventually said was covered in third-degree burns on 85 percent of his body, was hanging off like a cobweb, according to Baldwin. The blisters on his body were oozing with blood.
“I knew right then, I was his only chance,” Baldwin stated. During the early 60s, a day when cell phones didn’t exist and paramedics were unheard of, the boy’s only access to a hospital was Baldwin’s car.
As more people began to arrive on scene, Baldwin said someone approached him with a little girl, who according to bystanders, was in the fire, but had managed to be rescued by someone. She, Baldwin said, only had a few minor cuts and scrapes that covered her body.
“We couldn’t touch the boy, but somehow we knew he had to get out of that ditch,” Baldwin said. “I asked him if he could get out and he said he could.”
Naked and in shock, the boy climbed out of the ditch and got in Baldwin’s car.
“I told two of my students to get in the car that we were going to take them to the hospital and sent the other students walking back to school,” Baldwin said.
One of those students, Baldwin believes, was Raymond Arthur Godwin.
Baldwin headed south to the nearest hospital, which was in Clinton. During the beginning of the ride to town, Baldwin said the Smith boy never cried out in pain and talked and shared his story.
“He had just quit school to help take care of his niece (the little girl) and grandmother who was a invalid,” Baldwin said. “The grandfather had a wooden leg, so the boy’s sister had to work to take care of the family and he stayed home to take care of the old lady and girl.”
The grandfather, Baldwin said, was known in the community as Peg Smith, but he was unsure of the grandmother’s name.
According to Baldwin’s recollection of the victim’s story, there was a heater inside the home and the young boy was working to mend it that day. As he grabbed what he thought was a can of kerosene and doused the fire with it, it exploded in his face because it was actually gasoline.
“That heater exploded and set that boy on fire,” Baldwin said. “Just like everyone else does, when he knew he was on fire he ran out of that house. But, that’s when he became a hero. Even though he was burning, he went back into that house because he knew the little girl was in there and he had to save her.”
The grandmother, who was bed bound, was sitting beside the heater, and like the young boy, immediately caught fire and couldn’t be saved. The grandfather had gone fishing.
“That boy shared his tragic story with us,” Baldwin said.
About three or four miles from the hospital, Baldwin said, the young boy began to feel the pain.
“He began to moan, but he walked into that hospital,” Baldwin shared. “They examined the little girl and she was fine. I went back to see the boy the next day, but he died from those burns. No one could have lived through that.”
In the more than 50 years since the incident, Baldwin said he has never seen anyone from the family again.
“I was traumatized for more than a week after I saw that,” Baldwin shared. “That smell of burnt human flesh really stayed with me.”
Just a year later, Baldwin would leave Midway High School for a teaching position in Bladen County. He has never forgotten the little girl or the family and has often wondered what happened to them.
“I would like to be reunited with them or learn what became of them,” Baldwin said. “That boy became a hero that day. He made a heroic decision that saved that little girl’s life.”