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Neighbor's shouting saves man from blaze

Investigators think a lawn mower explosion caused the fire that badly damaged a home on Pennsylvania Avenue.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published February 18, 2006


CLEARWATER - Elzie Smith Jr. was about to jump in the shower when he heard a boom.

He didn't think much of it. He hears transformers pop in the neighborhood all the time.

But flames were shooting from the back of his house Friday and smoke was filling the attic.

His neighbor, Michael Trueblood, who lives around the corner, saw the fire. He ran inside Smith's home through a door that was left open and ordered him to leave.

"Your house is on fire!" Trueblood yelled. "You need to get out!"

Smith, who was naked, grabbed his red sweat pants off the floor and ran outside.

"I couldn't believe it," said Smith, 66, who was still dazed by the trauma.

Smith, a construction worker, said he has lived in the neighborhood since 1979 and at the home, which caught on fire, at 808 Pennsylvania Ave., since 1996. Smith rents the home from Henry Moore, 80, of Clearwater.

Interim Clearwater Fire Marshal Steve Strong said Trueblood probably saved Smith's life.

"There was a pretty significant danger," Strong said. "A neighbor getting him out was key to his survival."

Smith had finished mowing his lawn shortly before the blaze. Investigators think the mower exploded in a small shed attached to Smith's home. The fire spread up the wood walls and into the attic.

Clearwater Fire Department received a call about 2:25 p.m. Friday. First responders arrived at the scene about three minutes later and the fire was out about 20 minutes later, Strong said.

The blaze caused about $150,000 of damage to the home, which was likely totalled, Strong said.

Some windows were knocked out to fight the fire. The shed in back of the home is a charred hull. And inside, the walls are blackened in spots, the ceiling has several gaping holes and the floors are covered with pink insulation, ash and dirt.

About two hours after the blaze, Smith's neighbors helped him recover his possessions. Smith's next-door neighbor, Thomas Davis, his wife Charlene Davis, and her 21-year-old daughter Tequella Bennett carried clothing, lamps, couches and sofas from Smith's home and stored several of the items in their garage.

Davis said Smith will be staying with her until he finds someplace else to live.

"He can stay as long as he needs to," Davis said.

Davis and her husband, Thomas, said Smith had done so much for them they wanted to do something in return.

"He looks out for us and watches our house," Thomas Davis, 54, said.

And almost daily, Smith sits on his porch and greets them with cookies, candy, pork chops and other goodies.

"That's how a real neighbor is. They could just sense what you need," Thomas Davis said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com