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Woman's insomnia may have saved lives

A Palm Harbor woman's annoying habit may have saved a couple next door when she noticed their house on fire in the middle of the night.

Published June 1, 2004

PALM HARBOR - Margaret Helms often has trouble sleeping, but during the weekend, her insomnia saved the lives of two people when fire destroyed their house next door.

Helms, 59, was awakened early Saturday morning by what she thought were animals running outside the bedroom window of her Eniswood home off Alderman Road.

A chronic troubled sleeper, Helms thought little of it.

But as she tried to close her eyes about 2 a.m., some glass outside broke. She thought it was teenage hooligans.

"I'm not a very curious person," Helms said. "It takes a lot to get me going."

But a few moments later, Helms headed to her window.

"I could see fire," she said.

An electrical fire apparently had started in the home of George and Shirley Hizer, near their outdoor grill, according to Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. The sounds of rustling animals that Helms heard were actually the fire crackling. What sounded like kids throwing beer bottles was windows shattering.

Helms woke up her husband, Ken.

"I called 911, and she went over and banged on the door," said Ken Helms, 68, who has lived next to the Hizers since 1992.

The fire alarm was going off in the house, but no one was moving. The Hizers had returned hours earlier from a funeral in Pennsylvania. After a quick dinner, the couple were sound asleep.

"Going to a funeral is exhausting," said Shirley Hizer, 67, who couldn't remember when the couple went to bed. "I guess we were just that tired."

Finally, the loud knocks got the Hizers' dog, Leo, to start barking. Soon, the Hizers were safely out of the house. They were unharmed.

So was Leo, but granddaughter Lindsay Woods' cat, Toby, died in the fire. Woods, 21, was staying with the Hizers but had left Friday night because her boyfriend had become ill. Amber Figueroa, 28, another granddaughter, lives with the Hizers but was not around because she is allergic to cats.

Both would have stayed in Figueroa's room, which is near where the fire started, Shirley Hizer said.

"It was a blessing," she said.

Nearly 40 firefighters from three municipalities battled the blaze for 21/2 hours before the fire was under control, Palm Harbor district fire Chief Dan Zinge said. The 2,300-square-foot home where the Hizers had lived since 1989 was gutted, Zinge said. Damage was estimated at $450,000.

On Monday, family and friends began cleaning what they were able to save from the charred home. Shirley Hizer praised firefighters, who were able to pull her precious china and some stained glass from the burning home.

They also salvaged her glasses and George Hizer's wallet.

Mike and Todd Dixon opened their home across the street for the Hizers while they figure out what to do next. The Dixons leave today for Minnesota, in anticipation of the birth of their eighth grandchild.

While they're gone, the Hizers will have the run of their house.

"It's what you got to do for friends," Todd Dixon said.

Margaret Helms, whose troubled sleeping may have saved her neighbors' lives, said she was happy to help.

"They're great people," she said. "It's been a real tough week for them."

Splitting time between her recliner and bed, Helms has long had trouble sleeping. Soon, she'll visit a doctor to undergo sleeping tests. For whatever reason, she can't reach a deep sleep.

On Saturday, for once, it was worth it.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 771-4303 or at

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 01:00:29]

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