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Fire destroys home, holiday gifts

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 13, 2001

TAMPA -- The wood-frame bungalow at 11 Hamilton Heath Drive was more than just a home for Diane Schiller and her family. It was the keeper of family milestones.

It was where Schiller went into labor and gave birth to her youngest daughter. Where she first heard the news that she would be a grandmother. Where the family celebrated Christmas.

Early Tuesday morning, the home on a tiny street in between the Seminole Heights and Sulfur Springs neighborhoods was destroyed by fire. A burner on a stove had been accidentally left on, firefighters said.

Schiller, her partner, Bob Gibbons, and their 10-year-old daughter lost most of their possessions, including all of their clothing, as well as family photos and a hand-sewn quilt made by Schiller's grandmother.

Gibbons, 56, woke up about 2 a.m. Tuesday and smelled smoke. He woke up Schiller, who had fallen asleep on the couch.

"One half of the kitchen was full of black smoke, and the other half was an orange and yellow glow," said Schiller, who is 44.

They woke their daughter, Rachel, and grabbed Zeus, Tigger and Pupalups, the family's three dogs. Once they were outside, Zeus ran back inside the burning building.

Gibbons and Schiller went inside and crawled on the floor to find the Pomeranian. They did and ran outside to safety.

On Wednesday afternoon, the quilt lay in the front yard, soggy from the firefighters' water and dirty with smoke. The smell nauseated Schiller.

For now, they are staying with their neighbor across the street.

Schiller said she hadn't yet gotten a Christmas tree but had bought hundreds of dollars' worth of Christmas presents. Schiller and Gibbons thought they were going to have a great Christmas because they had recently received a $1,000 check for overpayment of their mortgage. Gibbons, who is a painter, has lived in the house for 25 years; he met Schiller more than a dozen years ago, and she moved in.

Although Christmas will be difficult this year, both say they have a lot to be grateful for.

"We're going to be thankful we're alive," said Schiller. "I think we've been given the biggest gift: Everyone we love is alive."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or lush@sptimes.com.

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