Jul. 25—HIGH POINT — Vivian Moser Washington's house on E. Commerce Avenue looks pretty much the same as it did when she was growing up there. Same small, two-story frame. Same front porch. Same two upstairs windows that open out onto the roof of the porch.
What's missing are the front-porch columns that once supported the roof. Washington, now 70, says they've long since been replaced, but those columns were not insignificant — one morning more than half a century ago, they helped save five children's lives.
Even more significant than those columns was the bravery of Washington's uncle, Robert Cartwright. Sadly, he's gone now, too, but he'll never be forgotten.
The year was 1965. The morning of Jan. 2 began like most other Saturday mornings, with the five Moser children — Vivian, Kathy, Jackie, Debbie and Lawrence — asleep upstairs. Their mother, Ida, had gotten home from her third-shift nursing job and gone to bed downstairs. Their father, Jack, had run an errand with Ida's parents, who were visiting from Connecticut.
Thirteen-year-old Vivian, the eldest child, awoke first.
"I thought I heard my mother calling me," she recalls. "I went to the top of the stairs, but I didn't hear her anymore. Then I thought I smelled smoke, and all of a sudden all this thick, black smoke was coming up the stairway, and I realized the house was on fire."
Vivian quickly woke her four siblings, but they were trapped — and terrified. The smoke was thickening, and they feared the flames would race up the stairs any moment.
"It was scary," says Kathy Moser Bailey, now 69 and still living in High Point. "It was so black, we couldn't see anything."
Vivian did the only thing she knew to do — she led the frantic group through one of the windows that opened onto the front porch.
"We couldn't even think about jumping down," she explains, "but the roof seemed the safest thing to me until somebody could get us down."
That "somebody" turned out to be Cartwright, who just happened to be driving his pickup through the neighborhood when he spied smoke and flames coming from a window at the house. Cartwright, a 55-year-old Army veteran of World War II, raced to the house, where he found the five panic-stricken children screaming on the roof.
According to a High Point Enterprise account of the incident, Cartwright's initial instinct was to grab a garden hose and try to put out the flames, but when the children's screams intensified, he tried to rescue them. First, he kicked down the house's door, but the heat and smoke drove him back.
That's when Cartwright noticed the columns supporting the roof. If he could somehow shinny up one of those columns, he might be able to get the children safely to the ground. That would be no small feat for a 55-year-old man — and he'd have to do it five times without resting — but he saw no other options. The children might die otherwise.
So Cartwright grabbed hold of a column and began working his body up to the roof. When he got there, he had the first child hang on by hugging his neck as he slowly climbed back down. One by one, with the fire continuing to spread inside the house, the uncle rescued the children.
That afternoon's Enterprise hailed Cartwright as a hero, under the headline "Uncle Rescues 5 Children From Blazing House Fire."
Was he scared?
"No, I wasn't frightened," he told a reporter. "I just wanted to get those kids out."
Meanwhile, when firefighters arrived, they rushed inside and found Ida Moser unconscious, apparently overcome by smoke inhalation. Cartwright and the children hadn't realized she was still in the house.
"When they brought her out, we thought she was dead," Vivian recalls. "But thank God, she survived."
Moser was hospitalized for about four months, with severe burns on her face, arms and hands, but eventually was able to return to her job. Later that year, she wrote an open letter in The Enterprise, thanking the community for supporting her and her family.
The house itself suffered major fire damage in the living room, but mostly smoke and water damage elsewhere. It was obviously salvageable, as Vivian still calls the house her home some 56 years later.
And as for Cartwright? He would live another 33 years, dying in 1998 at the age of 88. His memory, though, will not die for the nieces and nephew he saved that Saturday morning back in 1965.
"He was our hero," Vivian says. "Yes, he was."
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