A Pensacola man is still reeling several days after he lost the love of his life in a fire that destroyed the couple's humble campsite where they had been living.
Craig Heathcoe, 55, said he tried to save his girlfriend, Angela Meeks, from the flames after a small portable heater accidentally caught their camping tent on fire last week.
Meeks, 53, who had trouble walking unassisted due to recent strokes, succumbed to her burn wounds Wednesday night before paramedics arrived to the homeless camp where she and Heathcoe had been living together as a couple for almost a year.
Heathcoe himself was badly burned while trying to pull Meeks out of their tent’s boiling nylon, and less than a week removed from the tragedy, he’s still living in the woods and in pain.
The skin up and down the right side of his body is raw and stings when an over-the-counter burn cream is applied.
But the physical pain, Heathcoe said, pales in intensity compared to the hurt in his heart.
“I prayed for her for 54 years until I found her, but then I only got to spend one year with her,” he said about his lost love, Angie.
Heathcoe is heartbroken, and the ache of it is consuming.
“She loved me every day. She loved me. And she truly loved me, not like all those other damn women who I’ve had in my past,” he said. “Angie loved me, and I loved her.”
He said that she loved him regardless of his past and current situation. To her, it hadn’t mattered that he was homeless, lived in the woods in a tent and had spent the better part of the past decade rambling his way across the continental U.S. jobless.
On cold and desperate nights in the woods when they were huddled together, Meeks made Heathcoe feel like he was still a special person with a place in the world — by her side.
“Yes, I loved her with all my heart, bro — all my heart,” Heathcoe said.
Heathcoe and Meeks’ tent was set up next to a tent shared by two brothers on the night of the fire in the area of the 4200 block of North Palafox and Hickory streets.
Heathcoe was seated outside talking to his two neighbors at about 7 p.m. Meeks was asleep on the couple's bed inside of the tent, lying next a small portal heater positioned inside the tent to keep her warm.
“It happened so quick. I couldn’t really tell you what happened. It happened so quick. I’ve never really seen nothing go up that quick in my life,” Heathcoe said.
He didn’t see what exactly happened inside the tent. All he knows is that one second everything was fine and the next his home was ablaze.
Meeks couldn’t get out on her own because of her disability, and Heathcoe rushed to try to pull her out, in the process suffering burns.
"All over the right side of my body, my face, my arm, all over the right side of my body I’m burned pretty good,” he said. “I’m guessing third-degree because, my knuckle, it burned the hide off my knuckle.”
One of the two brothers living in the text next door to Heathcoe and Meeks called 911, and Escambia County Fire Rescue was dispatched to the scene.
“It went up so fast, man,” Heathcoe remembered.
Heathcoe said he and Meeks met at the beginning of 2021 at a Loaves and Fishes organization in Biloxi, Mississippi, and instantly fell in love.
They liked everything about each other, and in the early days of their relationship, the pair spent hours just talking and chatting, chatting about anything and everything.
“She was just a good woman. She never smoked a cigarette, never drank a drop of alcohol in her life, never done no drugs, never done none of all that,” he said. “She was just a damn good woman.”
Meeks had already suffered multiple recent strokes before Heathcoe met her, he said. She was paralyzed on the right side of her body, used a wheelchair and Heathcoe became her caretaker.
They moved to Pensacola together looking for a better life last February.
“We spent all our holidays together for the last freaking year, and every holiday was special to her — Valentine's, Christmas, Thanksgiving. She loved holidays,” he said.
After the fire, Heathcoe was transported to the hospital but discharged after a single night.
He moved into the neighboring tent occupied by the two brothers who had lived next to him and Meeks.
Heathcoe said that Walter Arrington, the homeless health care navigator for Community Health Northwest Florida, has been checking in on him regularly since the fire.
While Arrington could not comment on what help if any he was providing Heathcoe as he is not permitted to speak about patients or potential patients, he said "the mission of Community Health, us being a federally qualified health care facility, is making sure that we are bringing health care to underserved populations."
Michael Kimberl, director of the Alfred-Washburn Center, said that his organization has been supplying Heathcoe with necessary supplies since the accident.
Anyone who would like to make a donation to help Heathcoe and the area’s other homeless people may do so by contacting the Alfred-Washburn Center.
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola man struggling and after witnessing girlfriend die in fire