MILDRED MCCARTER / 1921-2006
Milk safety heroine clung to window during fire
In 1992, 70-year-old Mildred McCarter straddled her 25th-floor windowsill for nearly 20 minutes to escape a fire in her apartment while hundreds of spectators shouted encouragement from below.
But McCarter was also remembered as a chemist at the Department of Health who helped discover the contaminant heptachlor in Oahu's milk in the early 1980s. She died on Dec. 24 at the Hospice Hawaii Kailua Home at age 85.
She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, her younger sister, Eleanor Mazzoleni of Lexington, Ky., said yesterday.
Retired Deputy Fire Chief John Clark remembered McCarter's rescue as one of the most memorable he has made.
"When we came down Bishop Street, the entire downtown lunch crowd was out on the streets," said Clark, captain of a four-man crew at the time of the fire. "There were literally hundreds and they were all pointing. We looked up, and we saw her perched over 200 feet up in the sky."
On the 25th floor, the hallway was filled with pitch-black soot. Two firefighters hosed down the fire in the living room, and then firefighter Wendall Soo yanked McCarter off the windowsill and carried her back inside.
"She was in shock. He just ran up, bear-hugged her and just lifted her into the bedroom," Clark said.
"As soon as Wendall pulled her off the windowsill, all four of us heard this huge cheer, and it was literally the hundreds of people watching. That was really a high emotional point for us," he said.
McCarter and the firefighters relived the fire several times for reality television shows.
"She was just a really nice, warm and caring person," Clark said. "She's almost like a model of strength and determination -- hanging on until help came. It captured the imagination of the entire nation."
Mazzoleni called her sister a courageous woman who returned to live in the same apartment. "She had no fear of going back."
Born in New Jersey, McCarter moved to Hawaii after her husband's death. She was in her 40s and fulfilling her teenage dream to live in Hawaii, Mazzoleni said.
In Hawaii she studied at the University of Hawaii and graduated with a degree in chemistry.
While working for the state Health Department, testing food products, she and two others found the pesticide heptachlor in milk. Researchers found that the contaminant, believed to be carcinogenic, made its way into milk through the pineapple tops that were fed to cows.
In a Star-Bulletin article during McCarter's recovery, she said she was surprised by the cards and letters that came from strangers.
McCarter is also survived by brothers Lester Lichtler of Amarillo, Texas, and Bill Lichtler of Orlando, Fla.; nieces and nephews; and grandnieces and grandnephews. Services will be held at noon Thursday at Mililani Downtown Mortuary.