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Before heading off to school, he saves his family from fire

The blaze does extensive damage to the house after the 9-year-old rousted his grandparents and uncle. "I'm proud of myself," he says.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published December 14, 2005


[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Eugene Thomas is credited with saving his grandmother Ellamae Williams, right. "If it wasn't for my son being up at the time and getting ready for school, they wouldn't be here," said Sosthenna Brown.

TAMPA - Eugene Thomas had just polished off a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal and was getting dressed for school when he smelled smoke.

He followed the scent to his bedroom and saw flames engulfing a pile of clothes.

"It was burning!" said Eugene, 9. "I felt not very happy. I was scared."

But he didn't panic. He ran to his grandparents' bedroom and back to the living room, where his uncle Zebede Highsmith was sleeping on the couch.

"Fire!" Eugene shouted. "Fire!"

"I didn't know what was going on," said Eugene's grandmother, 59-year-old Ellamae Williams. "The fire was going so fast."

Eugene called 911 as his grandparents woke up his toddler brother and scrambled to get out of the smoke-filled house at 4319 W Nassau St.

No one was injured.

"Had it not been for him being alert, we could have had a tragedy on our hands this holiday season," said Capt. Bill Wade, fire rescue spokesman.

The 911 call came at 7:42 a.m., three minutes before Eugene usually leaves for school.

So, before Tampa firefighters had doused the last flame, Eugene walked a few blocks to Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, where he is a third-grader.

He didn't want to be late.

"I like P.E.," Eugene said. "We play football and dodgeball."

Later, fire investigators determined the fire started when a power strip that had too many things plugged into it got overloaded and sparked.

The fire swept through the 825-square-foot home that Eugene's grandfather bought more than 35 years ago, causing at least $80,000 in damage. It destroyed the Christmas tree, most of Eugene's clothes and his new Xbox 360, an early Christmas present from his mother, Sosthenna Brown, who lives in Ybor City.

Eugene sees his mother regularly, but lives with his grandparents because their home is near his school, where he's a successful student.

By the time Eugene walked into his third-grade classroom Tuesday, people were calling him a hero.

"Without him, they would have died," said Eugene's aunt, 64-year-old Minnie Pearl Harns. "He saved their lives."

Classmates and teachers started raising money for Eugene and his family, which is getting help from the American Red Cross. His school is accepting donations for the family, preferably gift cards, through 3 p.m. Friday.

Firefighters told Eugene he was brave and said they will nominate him for an award recognizing his courage.

"I'm proud of myself," Eugene said. "It's lucky I was there to get everybody up."

Eugene spent the afternoon talking to reporters and smiling for cameras. His mother and grandparents stood back and smiled. They had no home, but they had their little rescuer.

"He is a very brave man," said his grandfather, Preston Williams, 82. "He didn't panic."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373.

[Last modified December 14, 2005, 00:15:15]


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