HOMOSASSA — Matt Kemper did his best to fight back the tears. He wiped his eyes, swallowed hard and gripped the steering wheel of the white 2000 Isuzu Rodeo that had just been given to him.
For the first time in more than a month, his world was looking a little brighter.
Two and a half weeks ago, his mother, 66-year-old Trudy Kemper, and 34-year-old sister, Tamerla Kemper, perished in a mobile home fire on Seaview Drive in Spring Hill.
A week before that, his wife left. Things only seemed to get worse for the 33-year-old Pasco Fire Rescue firefighter-paramedic. While dealing with the grief from the sudden loss of his family, the engine on his aging car went bad.
For the next three weeks, that meant taking a cab every day to his job. And sometimes hitchhiking.
What Kemper didn't know was that there were people looking out for him. Tuesday afternoon, a man he barely knew drove him from Spring Hill to the Eagle Buick GMC dealership on U.S. 19 in Homosassa, where a change in luck awaited him. When dealership president Robert Phillips handed him the keys, it was all Kemper could do to contain his emotions.
"I don't know what to say except thank you very much," Kemper said.
Representatives from Citrus County Fire Rescue, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Highway Patrol turned out to show their support. But the man for whom he seemed to have the most gratitude was Dave Williams, a St. Petersburg philanthropist, who over the years has volunteered to help the families of Tampa Bay firefighters and law enforcement personnel get through personal tragedies.
Williams dismissed his efforts to help get Kemper some much-needed transportation, saying, "Here was a guy who really needed a break, and thought I could help him."
After hearing of Kemper's, plight he called his friend, Phillips, to see if there was any way he could make something happen. Phillips, who had read about the tragedy, said he could.
"(Firefighters) put their lives on the line every day," Phillips said. "They don't get thanked enough."
The late-night blaze on Sept. 22, which investigators said was started by faulty wiring, destroyed the 924-square-foot mobile home in Weeki Wachee Acres, where Kemper lived for a time.
Although neighbors attempted to rescue his mother and sister, they were unsuccessful. Both were pronounced dead at the scene. Also lost were Kemper's two dogs, a dachshund and a beagle-dachshund mix. A third dog, a 6-month-old Chihuahua named Cisco, escaped but was picked up by a neighbor and later sold.
Kemper said that, if nothing else, the tragedy has taught him a lot about what he considers the important things in life.
"You learn a lot about yourself and your determination to go on," he said. "I'm thankful to have had good people around me to get through all of this."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.