Stove fire destroys refugees' home

Smoke damages three other units while water damages retail space below the apartments Thursday morning.

Published February 9, 2007

TAMPA - Nicole Benitez stood on the balcony outside her blackened apartment Thursday, her face smudged with soot.

An early morning stove fire had destroyed the furniture, dishes, food and appliances of the four people who lived inside. But "we have our lives, which is a lot more than some stuff you could go to the store and buy," the 17-year-old said.

Her boyfriend Rodolfo Santana, also 17, and Santana's mother Gladys Vigoa, 38, are Cuban refugees. Vigoa's father had been a political prisoner under Fidel Castro. They struggled through four years of immigration bureaucracy to get a flight here in November 2005, Nicole said.

Rodolfo's stepfather Amaury Andrade, 37, followed in a raft.

About 4 a.m. Thursday, Andrade left for one of his jobs. He had heated up some oil to fry a steak for lunch. But, tired from working late at his office-cleaning job, he forgot to turn off the stove before he left.

About 5:30, Vigoa awoke to smoke and flames. She woke the teenagers. Nicole and Vigoa ran outside the apartment at 6805 N St. Peter Ave., near Armenia and Sligh avenues.

"When it happens, you're shocked. You don't know what to do, where to go, whether to grab some stuff or run," Nicole said.

Rodolfo emptied an extinguisher into the blaze but it kept coming back. Nicole screamed at him to get out. The moment after he fled, an explosion blew out an apartment window.

The ensuing blaze caused smoke damage to the building's three other apartments and water damage to the retail spaces below.

Nicole didn't know what would come next. The Red Cross is providing them a Days Inn room for three nights, and her own family may be able to help.

When Nicole was 10, she traveled to Cuba with her grandmother. There, she met Rodolfo, a distant cousin.

They were dating before Rodolfo even arrived in the United States. Two months ago, Nicole moved into their apartment, upstairs from her mother's beauty parlor.

Rodolfo, a Hillsborough High School senior, works every day after school in a supermarket. His mother works two cleaning jobs.

Now most of their possessions were burned or melted, but Nicole tried to keep their spirits up.

"If God sees you complain about your possessions when you still have your life, he's not going to be happy," she said.

Rodolfo and his parents, grimy and exhausted from sifting through ash, sat around a trailer loaded with their few remaining things.

A fish tank sat next to the front door, about 10 feet from the stove. Its plastic top was twisted and scorched.

But the fish were still swimming.

"You gotta take everything with a smile," Nicole said.

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.