An 83-year-old woman who founded the nursing program at Saddleback College was killed early Friday in a fire that quickly engulfed the rear bedroom of her house.
Gertrude Constance Baker, known as Connie to family and friends, was burned to death about 1 a.m. in her home at 112 W. Avenida Cordoba, firefighters said.
Although fire officials have not determined the cause of the blaze, neighbors speculated that Baker might have fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette in bed.
The fire, which took about 15 minutes to control, destroyed parts of the roof, attic and hallway of the single-story home, according to San Clemente Fire Capt. Jim Dahl. Damage was estimated at $150,000.
Neighbors said Baker, a retired nurse and a former lieutenant in the U.S. Army, appeared to be despondent as the holidays approached. They also said she was in pain from a hip injury suffered more than a year ago, which made it difficult for her to get around.
"I had brought her Thanksgiving dinner, and she seemed in a stupor. . . . She was in a lot of pain," said Debbie Cometa, who has known Baker for two years.
Cometa described Baker as a lonely woman who lived alone, had no children and was twice widowed. Her nearest relatives live in Michigan, and she lived in San Clemente for about 20 years.
Baker founded the Saddleback College nursing program in 1974, was active at the Laguna Hills Beverly Manor and had worked with the state Board of Nursing in Sacramento. Cometa said the woman's walls were covered with photographs and certificates of achievement.
Saddleback College officials could not be reached for comment Friday.