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Dryer fire in Clearwater duplex sparks oxygen tank explosions

CLEARWATER — A fire in her home was starting to rage out of control, and Arlene Fischer knew there was nothing she could do to stop it.

"I grabbed the dogs and my telephone and I ran out the back door and yelled, 'Help! Help!' "

Fischer, 70, and her two dogs escaped just in time. Moments later, oxygen tanks stored in the home exploded, sending up what a Clearwater police officer called "a wall of fire."

The wood-frame duplex at 1104 Grove St. went up around 11:45 a.m. Monday. Fischer, who rents the east side of the duplex, said it started in the clothes dryer.

Sheryl Salmon and her 12-year-old son, Jared Dailey, who live in the west side of the duplex, were not home at the time of the fire. Their cat is missing, said Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Beth Watts. "I've lost everything," said a distraught Salmon after she rushed home.

Fischer said she had put clothes in the dryer that morning, and was alerted to a fire when her smoke alarm sounded. By that time, the dryer was engulfed in flames, she said.

As Fischer was going out the back of the home, two men who were nearby tried to run into the front to look for survivors.

Tracey Davis and Bobby Powell backed out when the smoke overwhelmed them.

"By the time we got to the edge of the street, it just exploded," said Davis, 41.

Two huge booms rocked the neighborhood.

"It shook our ceiling," said Pete Vogel, who works about a half-mile away at SCI Distribution.

Chris Dresser, who lives just a few hundred feet away, said it felt like a truck had hit his building.

"It was a shock pressure wave," said Dresser, 50.

Thick, black smoke billowed from the duplex while neighbors and passers-by gathered across the street, where Fischer sat holding onto her 12-year-old poodle, Bear, and her 3-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Frenchy.

As the fire continued to rage, Fischer looked dazed. The oxygen tanks belonged to her husband for medical reasons, but he is deceased. Now there was no family to call and nowhere to go, she said.

Several neighbors came up to Fischer to offer help and condolences. One man went home to retrieve a length of rope she could use to leash her panicked dogs. A woman who works with the homeless rushed off to get Fischer some warm clothing.

Powell offered to hold onto Frenchy, who jumped in his lap, licking his face.

"She's a loving, caring person," said neighbor Shawana Filer, 25.

Filer heard Fischer's screams for help and hurried to lead her elderly neighbor out of the yard of the blazing duplex.

"I almost really fell out," Filer said. "I've never seen anything like that."

Clearwater Fire and Rescue — with assistance from Largo, Dunedin and Safety Harbor firefighters — was able to bring the fire under control in about an hour.

The American Red Cross Tampa Bay Chapter was called to help. But the duplex Fischer had lived in for almost a decade was gone.

Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report. Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Rash of fires

There have been at least 10 house fires in Pinellas and

Hillsborough counties in the past two weeks.

"More or less, it seems to be the time of year for fires," said Tom Nestor, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

While there doesn't seem to be a definite trend in the causes, Nestor said, people are using more devices, such as candles and heaters, that can start fires because of the holidays and the cooler weather.

FAST FACTS

Dryer fires

Research by the U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found that about 15,600 fires, 15 deaths and 400 injuries are caused annually by clothes dryers. One of the primary causes of overheating is the accumulation of lint or other debris. The study suggests vents be inspected every two to three years. To see tips for dryer safety, view the report at www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v7i1.pdf.

Dryer fire in Clearwater duplex sparks oxygen tank explosions 12/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 9:30pm]
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