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Burglar bars trap three in Tampa house fire

TAMPA — On the other side of the hot glass window and sturdy iron bars, Julius Henderson heard his neighbors' screams.

Frantic, he tried to pry open the burglar-barred front door as the little white house on Chipco Street burned. But it was no use, and the voices inside were getting slower and more slurred.

"It was terrifying, especially to know you have people in there that you care about," said Henderson, who joined other neighbors in breaking windows through the bars to let in air.

Firefighters finally arrived and were able to pull out Mary Jones, 73, Willie Bynes, 69, and Jones' granddaughter Latoya Williams-Jones, 26.

Williams-Jones, the last to be carried out, was unconscious. She and Bynes were taken to Tampa General Hospital's burn unit. Jones was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.

The Fire Marshal's Office said the fire was caused by a space heater too close to a couch, and the family's smoke alarms had no batteries. Damage was estimated to be more than $100,000.

Capt. Bill Wade, a Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman, said the family would have likely escaped on their own if it hadn't been for the burglar bars, which had no quick-release levers.

Jones' brother, Al Givens, recalled the first time he saw the burglar bars on his sister's home more than 20 years ago. "I told them, 'That's a death trap.' "

"They try to keep crooks out of there, but they're making it bad for themselves," said Givens, 80, as he stood outside the burned home Monday.

Florida building and fire codes require that each sleeping room contain two means of escape — a door and a window. If burglar bars are installed, there must be a way to remove them without a key, and there must be smoke alarms in the home. A house is out of compliance if it has burglar bars without a quick-release mechanism, Wade said.

But Harold Scott, a code enforcement officer for the district of Monday's fire, said enforcing that rule is tough.

If a property is kept in good condition, as this one was, code enforcement would have no reason to inspect the property, Scott said. And while an ordinance requires contractors to get permits to install burglar bars, that doesn't always happen. Scott didn't know whether, at the time Jones had the bars installed, the current rules were in place.

Bynes and Williams-Jones were both in critical condition Monday and Jones was in serious condition, according to hospital representatives.

Jones, a teacher for about 40 years, tutors kids in the neighborhood, said Don Lee, 49, one of her former students from St. Peter Claver Catholic School. He stopped by the burned home Monday.

"Even though she retired, she never retired," Lee said. "She never stopped teaching."

Lee said Bynes is "the man of the house." He took care of maintenance and made sure there were no brown spots in the lawn. Williams-Jones works at a doctors' office, Lee said.

Henderson said his family and Jones' family have been neighbors for more than 30 years. "We're real close. We watch out for one another," he said.

Henderson's father was taking out the trash at about 6:30 a.m. Monday when he saw the house across the street on fire. Henderson rushed outside.

"It was just real intense," he said, holding a paper towel to his bloody wrist several hours later.

Henderson had a few minor cuts on his hands and needed a tetanus shot, but brushed aside any praise for trying to save his neighbors.

"I'm not a hero. No, I don't think so. When there are people in need, you just try to help them," Henderson said.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catallanelo, Luis Perez and Janet Zink, and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

>>Fast facts

A common hazard

The National Fire Protection Association includes security bars among its most common fire-related hazards. There have been similar fires in the same East Tampa neighborhood in recent years in which firefighters cited burglar bars as impediments to rescue:

August 2005: Nellie Junious, 76, was killed and her husband, Dosie Junious, 77, was seriously injured in a fire at 2909 E 17th Ave.

June 2005: Jessie Milledge, 57, and his companion, Angela March, 39, died in a fire at 4406 Booker T. Drive.

March 2003: Arthur Lee Robinson, 55, died in his home at 1016 E Martin Luther King Blvd.

Burglar bars trap three in Tampa house fire 12/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:32pm]

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