Blaze damages packed house

Firefighters find a huge collection of odds and ends inside a Spring Hill house. No one is hurt.

By ERIN SULLIVAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007

SPRING HILL - The retired sea captain saw smoke coming from a house across the street. It was a little after daybreak Wednesday, and he was up, drinking coffee. He went outside.

Don Brady had seen little of the middle-aged man and the elderly woman who lived at the faded pink house at 1333 Salem Court in the two years he has lived here. He knew that the man, Dale Lotridge, sometimes burned things in a trash can out back.

But this smoke was thick. Then he saw it come through the home's roof.

He banged on the front door and hollered. No response.

He saw a deputy's patrol car down the road, parked at a cul-de-sac. Brady, 51, ran and told him that a house was on fire.

Then he ran back, his adrenaline pumping. He banged on the door again. This time, Lotridge answered. Brady told him the house was on fire and asked about his mother. He said Lotridge, a short, portly man with thinning red hair, was confused and mumbling.

Brady pushed him outside and then went inside for the woman, Melvina Lotridge. She is 86 and uses a walker. Her son is her caretaker and doesn't work.

The house is packed, floor to ceiling, with stuff the son has collected. There is little room to move. Brady found the mother in a back bedroom and helped her up to her walker. He ushered her outside and helped put her inside a police car. Firefighters were moments away from reaching the house.

But Brady ran around back, to the screened-in patio, to the fire. The porch also is full of items, including about a dozen washers and dryers and at least two refrigerators. Hundreds of plastic clothes hangers. Coolers. Furniture. Machine parts. Traffic cones. Toys. All of this around a pool filled with murky green water.

Brady found a bucket and started plunging it into the pool and dousing the fire. When firefighters arrived on the scene, he grabbed a fire hose to help.

"I just did something I hope anybody would do," he said later.

The district chief of Spring Hill Fire Rescue called him a hero. Kevin Carroll doesn't encourage citizens to run into burning buildings to save people. But Brady did, without hesitation, and "that's an A-plus in my book," Carroll said.

The department is investigating the fire, which it thinks was ignited by a bug zapper on the lanai that had been left plugged in. But when a house - and a patio and a garage - are packed with stuff, it's hard to conduct an investigation, he said.

Carroll said a building inspector and a county code enforcement officer were called about the house.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dale Lotridge walked around the house looking at the damage. He and his mother can't move back into the house until it is all cleared out and deemed safe. They are staying with a family member in Spring Hill.

Lotridge said he has tried to declutter a few times before, but it's too overwhelming. But now, he has to. He has no choice.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or 813 909-4609. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.