'Lady in the van' saved from fire by friend, volunteers
By Patricio G. Balona
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.
Delores Sunderlin talks with Volusia County Sheriff Office Citizen Observer Patrol officers Bill Higham and Sally Christ as she sits in her van in DeLeon Springs on Wednesday afternoon, June 12, 2013.
DELEON SPRINGS — People who have lent a helping hand know Delores Sunderlin as "the lady in the van."
For at least 10 years, they have seen the paralyzed woman's van in the parking lots of businesses in or around DeLand or on the sides of roads, as she either slept or rested in the beat-up old white Ford Econoline 150 with brown lines.
But the van that is her home nearly became her deathbed when it caught fire recently. Sunderlin, 66, paralyzed from the waist down, would have died trapped inside. She was saved by a shop owner and two sheriff's Citizens on Patrol volunteers.
Now, another crisis looms. Sunderlin needs a new van and a new place to park it. She has been keeping the van at the mechanic's shop owned by Kenneth "Mickey" Hiatt. But he is retiring and leasing his business.
Still, Sunderlin is just glad to be alive. Tears ran down her face this week as she recalled the frightening fire on the night of May 16.
"Thank you is not enough to express my gratitude to the COPs who brought out a fire extinguisher to put out the fire," said Sunderlin, sobbing as she sat in her van Wednesday. "They saved my life. I had never been so scared in my life."
According to Volusia sheriff's officials, COP volunteers Bill Higham, 75, and his partner, Sally Christ, 77, were on random patrol in DeLeon Springs when they drove by the automotive shop at Retta Street and U.S. 17. at 7:16 p.m.
Higham said he thought he saw smoke out of the corner of his eye. He thought the smoke was from smoldering trash but some uneasy feeling made him turn around and take another look. That's when he saw the fire "falling from the bottom of the van's engine compartment."
"He grabbed the fire extinguisher to put out the fire," Christ said. "I was worried thinking it could be the gas line."
While Higham and Christ were noticing the smoke, Hiatt, the owner of the mechanic shop, was getting a call from Sunderlin. But he could not understand what the soft-spoken woman was saying. So he walked around his fence and saw smoke and flames billowing from the van's engine.
Sunderlin was screaming "I can't get out, I can't get out."
The van was quickly filling with black smoke and as Hiatt opened the hood, flames shot out, he said.
"Luckily the Citizens on Patrol were passing at the same time and grabbed a fire extinguisher from the trunk of his car," Hiatt said. "She would have died that night there if somebody didn't come to help."
Hiatt said he took the fire extinguisher from Higham and got under the van to make sure the fire was completely out.
"It was good timing that the civil patrol came by," Hiatt said. "There is no way I would have been able to lift her and get her out of the van."
"To me 'Thank you' is plenty," said Higham, who visited Sunderlin on Wednesday afternoon.
No one is more grateful than Sunderlin.
"I was so scared," Sunderlin said. "I could see the smoke and fire but I could not jump up and run because I am paralyzed."
Sunderlin was paralyzed from the waist down after she was shot in the back four times in 1974 in a domestic violence incident. She has lived in the van for 15 years. In the vehicle are boxes of what few possessions — mostly clothes — she was able to grab from her Casselberry house when she was evicted in 1998.
Ten years ago, Sunderlin showed up at Hiatt's mechanic shop asking him to work on the 21-year-old van. She paid her bill, telling Hiatt she lived on Social Security money, Hiatt said.
For the next decade, Hiatt would keep the van running for Sunderlin — working on the fuel pump, the brakes, putting in a new battery — so Sunderlin could run a fan in the van during the hot months. She paid whatever she could, and Hiatt did it for free at other times.
She has lived in her van in parking lots of banks, supermarkets and other locations in and around DeLand.
"People got to know me and they knew I was not there to give them problems, so they left me alone," Sunderlin said.
Then one winter about six years ago, Sunderlin came to Hiatt asking if she could borrow electricity to keep warm in the van and has been staying in it under a carport shelter next to his shop since. When the van ran, Sunderlin would leave Hiatt's garage and make short trips to McDonald's, a dollar store, the gas station or the post office, or hang out in a different parking lot. But she would return to the shop at Retta Street and U.S. 17 at night.
Among the network of people who have helped Sunderlin is Jennie Mero of DeLeon Springs.
"I met her parked by the post office one day," Mero said. "She asked me if I could get her mail and gave me her key to her post office box."
Sunderlin said she has lost touch with her three children.
Hiatt and his wife, Karen, have been like children to Sunderlin. For the past 10 years, Karen Hiatt has done all the shopping for Sunderlin's needs, washed her clothes and the couple have also shared their meals with Sunderlin or bought her food to make sure she has something to eat.
"She has snacks in the van but it wouldn't keep a canary alive," Kenneth Hiatt said.
But Hiatt leased out his business and is looking forward to enjoying his retirement with his wife.
"For 10 winters I have helped her stay warm and kept her fan blowing to keep her cool for the summers," said Kenneth Hiatt . "But I am retired now and I have told her that I will not be around that much and want her to find somewhere to go to get help."
Richard Alto, of the state Department of Children & Families, said he could not comment on Sunderlin's case, but confirmed the state agency is working to get Sunderlin help.
"I hope I could get some help from HRS (DCF) and that I could get another van," a sighing Sunderlin said.
So, even as the retired automotive businessman has asked Sunderlin to leave, he has also been looking for a van to replace the burned out one. He thinks he has found one selling for $1,200, and hopes to be able to get that one for her.
"Nothing would make her happier," Kenneth Hiatt said. "She wants to be mobile. She will not be stuck in a chair in a concrete room."
Administrative offices: West Volusia 386-736-5961 Daytona Beach 386-254-4689 New Smyrna Beach 386-423-3352
Non-emergency dispatch numbers: DeLand 386-943-8276 Daytona Beach 386-239-8276 New Smyrna Beach 386-409-8276 Osteen 407-323-0151