WALTERBORO - When Bessie Kittrell was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, she saw the illness as just another challenge in life to conquer.
Some called her lucky. Some called her stubborn. But to her family, Kittrell had a remarkable will to survive.
In 2009, she avoided injury in a drive-by shooting at her house that killed three relatives, including her son and 20-month-old great-granddaughter.
She was beating cancer, too.
She endured radiation and chemotherapy. Last year, she went into remission.
But around 11:40 a.m. Friday, family members said the lifelong Walterboro resident was unable to save herself because she was sleeping when her house at 303 McDaniel St. caught fire.
Relatives tried breaking inside to rescue her, they said, but she died in her bedroom. She was 73.
Three other family members also were hospitalized in the fire whose cause remained unknown.
Her daughter, 51-year-old Ruby Kittrell, suffered several burns. She was flown to a burn center in Augusta.
Her granddaughter, Shakira Powell, 21, was treated for smoke inhalation. Her great-granddaughter, 3, who was burned on her arms, was taken to Medical University Hospital.
Authorities have not said what might have started the blaze. The State Law Enforcement Division was investigating, and police officers from Walterboro Public Safety refused to give further details Friday at the scene.
After the flames were extinguished, family members surveyed the charred house at McDaniel and Gerideau streets. They said Bessie Kittrell had died, but Coroner Richard Harvey would not immediately confirm the victim's identity.
Her husband, Elijah Kittrell, said he was trying to make sense of another tragedy for a family that grieved after the triple homicide less than five years ago.
He was working his job for the city when the fire ignited.
"They were all asleep," he said. "I don't know what happened."
Other loved ones said the women inside the home struggled to get out or to find a telephone because the smoke was so thick. One family member who lives nearby rushed to the front door, but when he opened it, the flames grew, said 27-year-old Virginia Mitchell, who married Bessie Kittrell's nephew.
"She was always a character," Mitchell said of the woman. "She was always in good spirits even with cancer."
Even as she fought the illness, Bessie Kittrell would sit on her front porch. If she had a Pepsi and something to gossip about, she was content.
The porch was her favorite spot after her retirement from the former Walterboro Veneer Co.
"She would sit on that porch and be friendly with everybody," one of her two sisters, 70-year-old Lillie Mitchell, said. "She beat everything that came at her, but now, she's gone."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Natalie Caula contributed to this report.
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