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Since the middle of December, four men who lived alone have died when errant cigarettes started fires, authorities say.
By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001
LARGO -- For the fourth time in two months, a local man has died in a fire investigators say probably started because of careless smoking.
Firefighters found 71-year-old Donald Desjarlais lying on the floor of his smoke-filled Largo apartment at 1807 Imperial Palms Drive early Thursday morning. He had second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body and had suffered severe smoke inhalation.
Desjarlais was taken by helicopter to the regional burn unit at Tampa General Hospital, but he died about 2:30 p.m. Thursday, said Pat McGinley, deputy chief of the Largo Fire Department.
Because there were ashtrays in the first-floor apartment, they believe a cigarette probably caught the sofa on fire, McGinley said. Investigators eliminated other possible causes, he said.
Investigators aren't sure how Desjarlais was burned, McGinley said. He may have fallen asleep on the couch, or could have come from the kitchen to try to put out the fire.
"There's a thousand ways it could have gone down," he said.
The fire may have smoldered for hours, McGinley said. One clock in the apartment had stopped at 1:30 a.m., another at 10:30 p.m.
Since mid-December, three other men, all of whom lived alone, have died in fires started by cigarettes.
Careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in the nation, killing about 1,500 people each year.
"Be careful what you do with your smoking materials," McGinley said. "Any type of open flame or lit material is always a danger."
Fire crews were summoned to Imperial Palms Apartments about 2:26 a.m. after the residents of an upstairs unit called 911 because of sparking behind their stove.
Fire crews found nothing wrong with the stove, but noticed smoke pouring from around the outlet. "That's when they determined it was coming up through the wall, which means the fire was in the ground floor apartment," McGinley said.
Firefighters hurried downstairs and went into Desjarlais' apartment. They found a sofa destroyed, and noted fire had crawled up a wall and across the ceiling. The fire had melted a ceiling fan. The blaze had died , but was smoldering.
On the floor under an archway separating the living room and kitchen lay Desjarlais. The inside of his nose and mouth was burned and filled with carbon.
All the windows and doors were sealed, so no smoke had escaped. But smoke had vented into a pipe chase in the bathroom and crawled through the space up to the second-floor unit.
Neighbors said Desjarlais had lived in the unit only a few months. Neighbors said he rarely left his apartment, usually only to push his walker to his mailbox and back.
"It was real difficult for him," said neighbor Harold Little. "It was one slow step at a time. He wasn't out walking or visiting. He was in his apartment all the time. It was too hard for him to move around."