Fire a blow to struggling mother

A Clearwater woman worked two jobs to afford the rent. But there wasn't enough for renter's insurance.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007

CLEARWATER - The second-floor apartment gutted by flames Monday was modest, but it was where the two women were trying to piece their lives together.

"Five years ago I started with nothing," 38-year-old Eileen Turner said Wednesday, two days after the fire that left her homeless. "Everything in that house is everything me and my kids owned."

Investigators had not yet determined the cause of the fire at the wooden house in the 1100 block of Prospect Avenue S, said Elizabeth Daly-Watts, Clearwater's public safety spokeswoman. She would not say whether officials consider the fire, which caused about $30,000 in damage, to be suspicious or accidental.

The house was split into two apartments. Turner and a friend, Carrie Outlaw, 19, shared the one upstairs. The bottom one was vacant.

Turner moved here from Chicago eight years ago. Working at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and as a telemarketer, she managed to pay $590 a month in rent. But she could not afford renter's insurance.

Her three children were in the care of the state at the time of the fire, Turner said, in part because of her bipolar condition.

Briana, 12, is in sixth grade at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo. She lives with a godparent.

Davonte, 10, is in a residential program at Tampa Bay Academy and has been upset since the fire, she said.

India is 20 months old. She also lives with a godparent.

Outlaw has learning disabilities, she said. She said she has had 15 operations to correct a cleft palate. Pregnancy forced Outlaw to drop out of the eighth grade in Tampa, she said. Her two kids - Reanna, 4, and Dontrell, 1 - live with a cousin in Largo. Outlaw said her children were taken from her because someone complained that she was not supervising them properly.

The two women met through a mutual friend.

Outlaw was staying with Turner, planning to go to school to become a nursing assistant. She was also trying to get her kids back.

After dinner Sunday night, Outlaw went to sleep on the couch in the living room. Turner went to her bedroom.

Around dawn, the smell of something burning awoke Outlaw. "It smelled like the forest was burning," she said.

She went to the back window and saw smoke and flames climbing from the apartment below.

Outlaw woke Turner up. The two women hurried outside.

Outlaw ran back inside to grab her purse and the cell phone in it. When she emerged, Turner asked if she would go back.

"I ran back inside because she needed the pictures," said Outlaw. "Her daughter just got pictures from school."

Outlaw grabbed a few pictures for Turner.

But Turner lost other irreplaceable items: cards the kids had made for her, baby books, India's stuffed animals.

"It really hurts that my kids lost all their stuff," Turner said.

The two were treated for smoke inhalation, Turner at Morton Plant Hospital and Outlaw at the scene.

"I'm not the best person," Turner said. "But I'm a person who lost everything. It's all I owned and I worked hard for it."

The two women sat in the motel room Wednesday on the third and last night paid for by the American Red Cross. The agency also gave the women almost $500 for clothes, food and other emergency needs.

The women did not know where they would go after check-out today at 11 a.m. They said they had not been able to get additional assistance from other agencies.

Turner fears that she will be homeless once she leaves the hotel and said she doesn't know where to turn next. Outlaw said she would stick with Turner until Turner found someplace to stay. Then, she thinks, she will be able to stay with a relative in Dunedin.

"I just want to make sure she's okay," Outlaw said.