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Girl shuts door on fire, watches TV

Her mother soon smells smoke from the closet. No one is injured, but the family of six is homeless.

Published May 12, 2004

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Ten-year-old Tyler Williams glumly assesses the damage to the bedroom he shares with his brother at 2331 Grovecrest Ave. in Palm Harbor. His little sister started a fire in his closet with a lighter Tuesday. His mother and a neighbor tried to put it out with buckets of water and a hose but the blaze spread.

PALM HARBOR - An accidental fire did $125,000 in damage to a house in Beacon Groves Tuesday, leaving a family of six homeless.

No one was injured in the blaze, which was started in a bedroom closet by a 4-year-old girl playing with a lighter, said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue District Chief Dan Zinge. Nearly 70 percent of the three-bedroom home on Grovecrest Avenue was damaged, and firefighters took about 20 minutes to get the blaze under control, he said.

Later, the Williams family was in shock. With their home of nearly five years destroyed, they gathered at the fire scene and tried to figure out what to do next. Friends, family and co-workers streamed in to comfort them as fire inspectors combed over the site.

Shirley Williams, 36, had been at home with daughters Savannah, 4, and Olivia, 2, late Tuesday morning. The girls snacked on crackers and juice while watching Dora the Explorer, their favorite show. Mrs. Williams was drinking a cup of coffee and talking to a neighbor on the phone. Her husband, Jeff, was with his grandmother, who was in the hospital for surgery.

"I smelled something burning," she said. "I thought it was the toaster."

But that was off. Mrs. Williams followed the scent to the walk-in closet in the bedroom of her two sons and saw the smoke.

The neighbor who had been on the phone, Jeanine Young, came over and tried to put out the fire with buckets of water and a hose brought in from the back yard. Mrs. Williams took the crying girls outside and put them on a trampoline in the back yard.

"It went out for a little while," Young said. "Then it started up worse, and we had to get out."

"It was just getting bigger and bigger," Mrs. Williams said.

They called 911 at 12:01 p.m., bringing fire engines from Palm Harbor, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.

About 24 firefighters were on the scene, Zinge said, and the fire was contained mostly to the boys' bedroom.

The fire displaced Jeff Williams, 38, a transporter for FedEx, and Mrs. Williams, who works in customer service at Home Depot. They live with their four children, ages 2 to 17.

After the fire was extinguished, its story unfolded. Savannah had been playing with a Scripto handheld lighter that the family keeps in a drawer and uses to light fireplace logs. When the 4-year-old told Zinge about what happened, "she broke down and started crying," he said.

Savannah told the chief that she had been flicking the lighter and accidentally started a fire in the closet, which Mrs. Williams said was packed with clothes and toys.

"She freaked out, closed the door, came back out and watched Dora the Explorer like nothing happened," said Mrs. Williams.

When she was talking to the chief, Savannah asked whether she would be in trouble, and said she was scared and very sorry.

Mrs. Williams said the family had talked with Savannah about the dangers of fire and the girl had never shown curiosity about it.

The fire destroyed the bedroom shared by brothers Tyler, 10, and Josh, 17. It also damaged a second bedroom and the kitchen.

The Williamses have insurance on the house, which would sell for about $152,600, according to an estimate by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office. Tuesday night the Red Cross confirmed that it was assisting the family.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird and photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this story. Nora Koch can be reached at 727 771-4304 or

[Last modified May 12, 2004, 01:56:30]

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