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    Apartments ravaged: Separate fires scar families

    Child's play leads to grim reality as Tampa tenants lose their homes. Damage estimate: $500,000.

    By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 9, 2003

    TAMPA -- Shakera Hart cried Wednesday. It was tough not to.

    There she stood, a 30-year-old mother of three, clearing out her drawers and closets, with the smell of smoke heavy in the air and her four-bedroom home at the Manhattan Palms Apartments mostly ruined.

    A U-Haul truck sat parked outside her half-charred building, loaded with her white sofa and a few other possessions worth keeping.

    Hart, along with her children and her sister, were victims of a fire that damaged at least eight apartments at the complex Wednesday, leaving four units uninhabitable.

    Hillsborough firefighters said the blaze started just before 11 a.m. when two children, ages 4 and 5, were playing with matches in the closet of their upstairs bedroom.

    By the time 50 firefighters and 18 emergency units had wrestled the fire under control an hour later, the damage had climbed to an estimated $500,000.

    No one was injured.

    For that, Hart said she was thankful. But she also was angry.

    "Those children are unsupervised constantly. They are loud. They're always running around," she said. "Nobody watches them. I've told (management) several times about it.

    "I understand things happen, but I complained. I told them."

    Officials did not identify the children Wednesday, but Hart said the apartment where the fire started is filled with children and other family members.

    Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said that children who start fires often are placed in a juvenile fire-setter program, but he said the two kids responsible for Wednesday's incident may be too young for that.

    Fighting the fire became more difficult when crews found a limited water supply from hydrants at the Manhattan Avenue apartment complex, forcing them to get water from a county hydrant about 1,300 feet away.

    Yeakley insisted the problem caused "no significant delay in firefighting efforts." He also said the complex had been inspected in May and that "everything checked out fine. Everything was within the standard of county ordinances."

    That didn't help Tamara Lezcano, 26, whose ceilings were caving in because of water damage.

    "It was pretty awful," said Lezcano, who will have to move. "You're standing there seeing everything you bought going up in flames."

    Hart started registered nursing classes Wednesday at Hillsborough Community College, in addition to her full-time jobs as a mother and licensed practical nurse. Add to that having to uproot on a moment's notice, and it was just too much.

    "I'm not dead. My kids aren't dead. I'm grateful for that," she said. "But I'm just real upset."

    Outside, a cluster of children stood gawking at the shell of the building. Then an ice cream truck rounded the corner. Seeing the children, the driver slowed to a halt and played cheerful music from a loudspeaker.

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