Homeless woman says rescue from fiery truck nothing 'heroic'

Saturday, July 13, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Mary Whitehead and her three children are still homeless in St. Louis, though dozens of people say they want to help.

On Wednesday, Whitehead, 31, and Bobby Hughes, a news photographer for KTVI, helped rescue a driver trapped in a burning truck. Spurred by news reports, dozens offered donations and other support to Whitehead throughout the day Thursday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

"It's overwhelming and exciting," Whitehead said. "I don't feel like I did something extraordinary or heroic. I did what I would want someone to do for me or my children if we were in need."

Whitehead and Hughes pulled Doris Householder, 35, from her pickup after it crashed and burst into flames on the Vandeventer Avenue exit ramp near Highway 40.

Householder lost part of a leg and is recovering at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Hughes, 45, said many police officers, firefighters and convenience store clerks he knows from working the midnight shift congratulated him Thursday morning.

"I don't consider myself a hero," he said. "But what Mary did was amazing. She prayed and comforted that woman."

Life-changing

Whitehead said the community's reaction to her heroism has changed her life.

"I've learned that if you can lend a helping hand even a little, it's worth trying," she said.

Community Women Against Hardship, a private organization that supports families in poverty, established a special account Thursday to accept donations. The organization offered assistance with food, housing and clothing for Whitehead and her children.

Dozens of callers to the Post-Dispatch and KTVI offered money, jobs, housing and other support.

The Joe Torry Giving Back the Love Foundation offered help to Whitehead and her children with proceeds from Saturday's Celebrity Basketball Challenge.

Whitehead said she had struggled with difficulties since childhood. She was sexually abused in her home, then went to live in state foster care when she was 13, she said. That's when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She said she had attempted suicide on several occasions.

Whitehead said she had been looking for housing and stability since she moved into a shelter when she was 17.

She receives disability payments because her mental health disorders keep her from working.

Whitehead said she wanted to return to school and become a counselor for abused children.

"I want them to know people in the world care," she said.

She and her three children -- Cartez, 14, Mikeisha, 12, and Kierra, 11 -- shuffle between shelters and low-budget hotels in a 1987 Pontiac Grand Am that often breaks down.

"I spend most of my time worrying about how we are going to eat every day or where we are going to sleep every night," she said. And that's what she ended up doing late Thursday.

She ran out of money and could no longer stay at a motel on the city's north side. She gathered her family's possessions in a single blue container and slowly drove away.

She had no place to stay Thursday night, despite the fact that her mother lives just a few blocks from the motel.

Daisy Sloan, 61, said that her daughter and grandchildren were not welcome to live in her three-story brick home. She also owns another 12-room house next door.

"I had to stand on my own two feet," Sloan said of growing up during difficult times. "I'm not going to take no kids or grown folks either. They have to establish their own."

Whitehead said that earlier she had been angry at her mother's treatment but later understood.

"I'm not mad at mom for her decision," Whitehead said softly. "I'm trying to get my life together for my kids. I don't want them making poor choices in their lives like I did."

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