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Love and Death in the Carolina Heat

July 23, 1986

SALISBURY, N.C. (AP) _ John Taylor sat in the middle of his hospital bed, twisting cigarette after unsmoked cigarette into small hills of tobacco.

His doctors permit him visitors, but caution that the 69-year-old man, recovering from severe heat exhaustion and dehydration, is not always coherent.

Heat does that.

John Taylor still couldn’t talk about what happened to his Hattie.

″Hot,″ was all he would say. ″It was so hot.″

Police estimate it was at least 110 degrees in public housing unit 621 when a patrolman and a neighbor broke in that night.

Inside, Hattie Taylor, 71, was slumped dead in her wheelchair. Her husband lay on the sofa with a 103-degree temperature, barely conscious.

Authorities described Mrs. Taylor’s death as heat-related, and said there was no evidence of foul play on the night of July 17. The exact cause was unknown pending autopsy results.

To her poor, often elderly and frail neighbors in the 116-unit comlex, Hattie Taylor’s death is not a statistic but a reminder of their vulnerability during this summer’s devastating heat wave.

″You just don’t know if it could happen to you,″ said Elsie Whitley, 71.

The thermometer in her studio apartment in this town 40 miles north of Charlotte read 110 degrees Tuesday. A window fan donated by community churches stirred the thick, hot air.

″You wake up wringing wet,″ Mrs. Whitley said.

She and several other residents interviewed said they shut their windows at night despite the heat because they fear break-ins.

They sit outside on folding chairs to escape the stifling heat inside the squat, brick buildings. The wildflowers they planted are brown stalks in the parched dirt.

The residents of Lafayette Circle can’t remember a summer so hot, so long.

″Makes you dizzy in the head,″ said Minnie Lyons, a 46-year-old resident who receives disability payments for heart trouble and high blood pressure.

The Salisbury Housing Authority isn’t required to provide fans or air conditioners to residents of its 559 public housing units, according to Executive Director Mary Fortune.

″We’re not running a nursing home,″ she said.

″The Housing Authority has no obligation to go check and see how each person is living,″ she said, adding that the Taylor apartment was in good shape during an annual inspection last October.

Keeping the small one-bedroom apartment clean was a burden that fell to John Taylor since a stroke left Hattie paralyzed several years ago.

″He did everything,″ said Don Nelson, the neighbor and friend who found the Taylors the night Hattie died.

Nelson went to check on them when their next-door neighbor told him she hadn’t heard water running for two days. Nelson knocked three times before Taylor called out that he was too sick to get up.

Two days later, when Nelson visited Taylor in the hospital, he found his friend lucid but depressed.

″He said the heat got to her, that he tried to cool her down - he didn’t say how,″ Nelson said Tuesday.

″Mr. Taylor was a very caring man,″ Nelson said. ″He got up in the morning, got her up, cleaned her, put her in the wheelchair, fed her. He would plait her hair for her. Day in and day out, he cared for her.

The windows were shut, the shades drawn and three electric burners on the stove were glowing red when police broke into Taylor’s apartment. Packages of meat were lying around the apartment, rotting. Hattie Taylor had been dead for hours.

What happened remains unclear, but Nelson said Taylor told him he shut the windows and lighted the stove in hopes the heat would take him, too.

Although the Taylors had a phone and an emergency alarm, they apparently never called for help.

Hattie Taylor had been in a nursing home following her stroke, according to Nelson, and her husband was afraid that if he called for help, ″they’d take her away from him, say he couldn’t take care of her anymore.″

Taylor remained in fair condition, too weak to attend his wife’s funeral Tuesday.

Staring down at the shredded cigarettes on his bed, he shook his gray head sadly.

″So hot,″ he said again.