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Friends recall soldier from Plant City killed in house fire trying to save his daughters

High school teammates remember him as a competitive athlete driven to succeed.

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Close friends recall his kind eyes and sense of humor.

Fellow military men describe Chief Warrant Officer Edward Duane Cantrell as a man of unyielding courage, willing to risk his life fighting in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Cantrell, 36, a decorated Green Beret and Plant City High graduate, died trying to rescue his two daughters from a fire at their home near Fort Bragg, N.C. The children, 6-year-old Isabella and Natalia, 4, also did not survive.

Cantrell and his wife, Louise, escaped the 1 a.m. blaze by jumping from the home's second-floor window. Cantrell then wrapped himself in a blanket and ran back inside to get the girls. Louise waited, but her husband never re-emerged from the smoke.

On Wednesday, friends said they will remember Cantrell as a quiet hero. Last summer, the Special Forces paratrooper returned home from his fifth deployment to Afghanistan. His military record included four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, according to the Army Special Forces Command.

His actions at home were no surprise to those who knew him.

"You don't get a Purple Heart for not being courageous," said Derek Busciglio, who played high school football with Cantrell. "He was just one of those kind of guys. This definitely seems like the kind of thing he would do."

When Busciglio, a Brandon orthodontist, read the news, it brought back memories of Friday night games, wrestling championships and hanging out after school.

He and Cantrell took county wrest­ling titles in their weight classes. Cantrell also participated in ROTC and was named Best Drilled Cadet in 1992. Busciglio supported his decision to join the Army after graduation.

Recently, the men reconnected on Facebook. They talked about getting together, having a beer and meeting each other's families.

"I haven't seen him in 18 years, but it doesn't seem that way," Busciglio said. "When I saw this had happened, it felt like my best friend had died. I just can't get over it."

Busciglio's mother, Diana Busciglio, recalled Cantrell as a polite young man.

"He was over at our house many times," she said. "He was a really good guy. He always had a smile on his face. He was a wrestling champ but he was very humble."

Friend Jennifer Collins met Cantrell in first grade and remained friends with him through high school.

"Duane was a great guy and full of life; he would do anything for you," Collins said. "I'm still in shock and saddened by the news. It's been a rough two days."

Jason Jones served with Cantrell in Bosnia in 1996 and 1997. Jones admired the military officer's professionalism and dedication.

"He died as he lived," said Jones, now a U.S. marshal. "He was the truest definition of the warrior creed. He never quit. He always put everyone else before him. There's no way he could have lived with himself not going back into that house."

Jones said his heart goes out to Cantrell's wife, who survived the fire. She could not be reached for comment.

"I can't imagine what she's going through, and the Special Forces guys who worked with him," he said. "The guys in those units are such a close-knit group."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Army Special Forces Command's Facebook page included a link to donate to the family as well as heartfelt tributes.

"If a hero must go down fighting, then there is no better way than to go down fighting for your kids," one read.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@tampabay.com.

Friends recall soldier from Plant City killed in house fire trying to save his daughters 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 11:22pm]
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