NEW DETAILS: Friends react to fatal Claiborne Co. house fire

By: Jim Freeman
By: Jim Freeman

NEW TAZEWELL, Tenn (WVLT) -- A Claiborne County grandmother died today in an early morning house fire.

Police believe 48 year old Rita Widner Beeler was overcome by smoke before she could make it out of her burning home just south of New Tazewell.

Volunteer TV's Jim Freeman spent much of the day in the Cloud Switch community and has the story.

Friends say Rita lived to help others.

And seeing her mother to safety was her last act of kindness.

Rita Beeler lived in an apartment which was in the basement of her mother's home in the Cloud Switch community.

It's in Rita's apartment where officials believe the 2:00 AM fire started.

Chief Anthony Fultz of the South Claiborne Fire Department says, "we found the house fully involved, heavy fire damage."

The Chief says Rita's mother Ann Widner crawled out through a window.

"The elderly female that lived here, when I arrived, she was outside."

With Ann safe, Fultz believes Rita went back inside to get Ann's oxygen tank, but was overcome by smoke and could not make it out a second time.

Devastating news to those who knew her best.

Claiborne County Sheriff Department Captain David Honeycutt says, "we grew up together. We all went to school together. I've been a guest at this house many times."

Juanita Honeycutt is the administrator at Tri-State Health and Rehabilitation Center and says, "we went to Sunday School together at the same little church."

The Clouds Memorial Baptist where Rita's name is still on the church rolls.

Carl Gulley is a resident at Tri-State Health and Rehab and says, ""I called her Sweetie."

Friends says doing something for someone else was Rita's calling card both in helping her mother and working at Tri-State Health and Rehab.

Carl Gulley is a resident at Tri-State Health and Rehab and says, "like when she come in to work, she'd say, where you at? I'd say right here, Pretty."

Making a difference in peoples' lives was her mission.

Juanita Honeycutt is the administrator at Tri-State Health and Rehabilitation Center and says, "everybody just loved her. She was always just walking in bringing some sunshine, trying to brighten everybody's day."

Little wonder why at the Center's resident council meeting...

Honeycutt says, "and they pick their favorite employee, and in February, Rita was their favorite employee."

Rita Beeler leaves behind a son, a daughter, and three grand children.

Officials say the cause of the fire is undetermined, foul play is not suspected, and there was not a smoke alarm in the home.

Autopsy results are pending.

Claiborne Funeral Home in New Tazewell is in charge of the arrangements.

And when complete, we'll make those available.

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