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More than 40 left homeless by fire at Tampa apartment complex

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Published:   |   Updated: April 28, 2014 at 04:37 PM

Glum-faced apartment dwellers smelling of smoke pulled possessions out of a fire-damaged Waterman’s Crossing apartment building Monday morning, hours after a blaze in a second-floor unit caught the whole building on fire. No one was injured. Everyone was displaced.

The fire at the complex along the Hillsborough River tucked between a high-rise apartment building for seniors and Tampa Catholic High School, started when a woman put a pot on the stove and then fell asleep, fire officials said. The damage estimate: $310,000 to the building that faces North Rome Avenue on the northwest side of the complex.

The woman, Angela Watson, 56, woke and began running up and down the outdoor landing banging on doors to alert her neighbors to get up and get out, said her sister, Wanda Brewer, who watched late Monday morning as firefighters cleaned up and residents moved armloads of clothing and boxes full of kitchenware and keepsakes to waiting vehicles in the front parking lot.

“She hurt her hand by banging on all the doors trying to get people to get up,” Brewer said. “Her mind is not all there today. All she was worrying about was what she had lost.”

Tampa Fire Rescue responded to the 12:30 a.m. Monday alarm at the complex at 4515 N. Rome Ave., and battled the fire that quickly spread to the third floor. A third alarm was called, adding three more engine companies, said fire rescue spokesman Jason Penny.

By 2 a.m. most of the flames were out though firefighters remained to douse hot spots here and there.

The scene was chaotic, said Mark Lufriu, who lives in a nearby apartment building within the complex.

“People were coming out with bird cages in their hands and yelling and screaming,” he said. The complex was built in 1973 and the age of the building means there were no firewalls in the attic, Lufriu said, and the flames spread quickly through the attic, which had collapsed in shambles along the entire length of the building.

He said it took firefighters a long time to get the blaze under control.

“It seemed slow, getting it out,” he said. “I thought they could have put it out a lot quicker.”

Firefighters said two nearby buildings sustained some heat and water damage.

The American Red Cross assisted 41 residents who were without a home after the fire. Many went to the Oak Grove Church of God in Forest Hills over night where a shelter had been set up. They met Monday with caseworkers who offered assistance such as clothing, medication replacement and long-term housing.

Red Cross spokeswoman Janet McGuire said number of people assisted did not include residents in two or three apartments who had left to spend the rest of the night elsewhere.

“Some were able to stay with family or friends,” she said. About a dozen took advantage of the church shelter Monday morning. “There were some who went to work and said they would return to spend another night at the church.”

Mental health counselors also helped lessen the impact on residents of losing most if not all of their belongings.

“It’s almost like a death,” she said. “It’s their life and it was taken away from them. It’s very traumatic and depressing for these people and they don’t know what to do next. They’re in shock.”

Long-term housing options have yet to be determined, she said.

“At this point,” McGuire said, “we’re going minute by minute.”

The complex was the scene of a similar fire in August 2009, which destroyed a building with 18 units and displaced 50 residents. That fire, started by an arsonist, caused $500,000 damage to a building, which has since been torn down. That building was adjacent to the one that was heavily damaged early Monday morning.

The last fire-safety inspection of the complex was in 2009, said Tampa Fire Marshal Milt Jenkins. He said residents complained Monday morning about not hearing smoke alarms, but those alarms wouldn’t trip if there was no smoke in their individual apartments.

“There were smoke alarms in all the apartments, but not all of them worked,” he said. It’s the landlord’s responsibility to put alarms in each unit, he said, but often residents disable them if they are cooking or smoking.

He said some residents said that when they opened their doors and smoke got into their apartment, the smoke alarms sounded.

“The landlord can only do so much,” he said. He doubts any charges or citations would be issued to anyone including Watson.

“She was cooking and she just fell asleep,” Jenkins said. “She woke up and said there was fire over her head. When she opened the door, it made the fire flare up even more. If she was standing up, she might not be here right now.”

Just before noon Monday, a teenage boy sat in a van, while his family lugged mattresses down two flights of stairs and piled them on top of the vehicle. The teen, who declined to give his name, said everyone was asleep in his home when they heard screaming and the sound of breaking glass.

“Then, someone kicked the door in,” he said. At first, he thought it was a burglary, then realized neighbors were trying to get the family out to safety.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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