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One who lived

Inmate who escaped recalls the blaze.

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DAVIS: He got out through a window.
  • DAVIS: He got out through a window.

See a video of the Times' interview with Roy Davis here.

Roy Davis was 16 years old when he escaped from the burning dormitory at the Negro Boys Industrial School in 1959. The Arkansas Gazette interviewed him and ran his picture with their account of the fire, and in it he described seeing an inmate collapse in flames as he went through the door from the dormitory to the classroom.

At the time, Davis' story seemed to support the prison superintendent's second version of the event — that the door to the dorm was unlocked. He'd first told the press it was locked.

But Davis, 65, a lifer at Cummins Unit of the state prison system, says the door was indeed locked, and that what he saw was a boy — Jessie Carpenter — kicking the door down and being consumed by the fire that entered the room.

Firefighters said Jessie's body lay partially in the outside room, but they believed he'd died against the door and the door had given way when the fire consumed the building.

Davis said boys could see the fire in the adjoining classroom from windows in the dorm of the U-shaped building. The classroom, which also served as a chapel, was heated by a woodstove made from an oil drum; logs were stacked beside it, Davis said.

Davis was the second or third to escape after prying off interior and exterior screens from one of the windows. He recalls removing the 16-penny nails that held the sturdy mesh — designed to keep boys from escaping — in place. The first person in the window was afraid to jump and had to be pushed out, he said.

Davis went back in a couple of times, he said, to help boys who were too stunned or lost in the smoke to escape. The dorm room, which was 54 feet long and slept 69 boys, was dark and full of smoke; to get back to the open window, Davis said, he had to count bunks, one, two, three … to get to the bunk by the open window. (The press reported at the time that two windows were pried free, but Davis recalls only one.)

Once outside for good, Davis and other boys who'd escaped shouted up to the window on the opposite corner where they knew more boys had run, telling them the way out. There was too much screaming, however, for their voices to be heard.

Then he watched the building collapse in flames. Three ambulances came; they only took away the dead, most of whom lay in a pile at that corner across from the opened window.

“It took a month to get that scent off, that body scent,” Davis said.

Davis had been sent to the boys' school for shooting at a train with a .22 (he said it was a friend's gun, and a friend who did the shooting, but only he was caught). He escaped from the fire, but he has spent much of his life in prison ever since, for doing time for possession of stolen property and later murder. He denies committing the murder.

Davis doesn't recall who locked him and the other boys in that night. He does know there was no one watching over them when the fire broke out.

Did the fire change his life for the worse? Did it make him angry? Davis says not. Does he blame anyone? “I couldn't put a finger nowhere,” he said.

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