PATERSON, NJ - An 85-year-old grandmother lost everything in a fire early Tuesday morning.
Betty Hester bought her house on Auburn Street in the early 1950s. She watched from the curb today as her house burned.
"When I came it was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” said Hester, through tears. "Things have changed. The neighborhood is not my choice.”
Over the past 15 years, she says the neighborhood has become drug infested. A vacant, boarded up house next door has been a persistent problem. Neighbors report people keep breaking in to use drugs. Hester has called police in the past and she’s even cleaned up after the squatters who break in.
"I went out there with my gown on. One shoe. No sock,” she said.
The fire broke out at around 2:30 a.m. A neighbor who brought Hester some socks and a blanket said she overheard screams coming from the abandoned property. An unidentified woman was getting high in there.
"She was smoking, doing her stuff,” said the neighbor, who goes by Mima. "I’m assuming she got high and fell over. That started to spark up."
The Paterson Fire Department is still investigating the cause of the fire, but they confirm it originated in the abandoned property. Deputy Fire Chief Mike Fleming said fires caused by squatters are a major issue.
"That’s the biggest issue we have. Absolutely,” he said.
The early morning fire also damaged a new playground.
Hester’s daughter is deaf. Hester didn’t realize her house was on fire until her dog woke her up. When she made it into the hallway, the walls were already burning.
"If it wasn’t for the dog barking, we would have slept through the fire,” she said.
She lost her cane, medicine, her daughter’s hearing aide and everything else they owned. Hester, her daughter and their dogs made it out unscathed. Hester is a great-grandmother. She and her daughter are now looking for another place to live.